Monday, August 1, 2011

The Neural Substrates of Religious Experience

One of my students (Thanks Kate!) put me onto this amazing paper:

The Neural Substrates of Religious Experience by Jeffrey Saver and John Rabin in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry.  The abstract:

Religious experience is brain-based, like all human experience.  Clues to the neural substrates of religious-numinous experience may be gleaned from temporolimbic epilepsy, near-death experiences, and hallucinogen ingestion.  These brain disorders and conditions may produce depersonalization, derealization, ecstasy, a sense of timelessness and spacelessness, and other experiences that foster religious-numinous interpretation.  Religious delusions are an important subtype of delusional experience in schizophrenia, and mood-congruent religious delusions are a feature of mania and depression.  The authors suggest a limbic marker hypothesis for religious-mystical experience.  The temporolimbic system tags certain encounters with external or internal stimulie as depersonalized, derealized, crucially important, harmonious, and/or joyous, prompting comprehension of these experiences within a religious framework

Take special note of various religious figures and their likely psychiatric maladies in a chart on 501-502.


Vinny said...

It amazes me that New Testament scholars seem to take everything Paul says about himself and his activities at face value. No one ever seems to consider the possibility that he may have been a pathological liar or so unstable as to be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. I don't think any of these same scholars would take anything Joseph Smith said about himself without a huge grain of salt.

Matt McCormick said...

Yeah, good point V. The implicit background assumption is that he's a saint or inspired. Then assumption feeds into the argument that what he's saying must be true. And we can know he's a saint because he says so. Double standards saturate pro Christian Bible scholarship.

Matt DeStefano said...

The most common religious experience was :"1) a patterning of eventsin a person’s life that convinces him or her that in some strange way they were meant to happen."

This is why any discussion of religious experience ought to begin with an examination of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Unless you had a prior expectation that such a pattern would emerge from your experience, then 'connecting the dots' to point out bizarre consequences is nothing more than drawing a pretty picture within an infinitely dense field of data.

Matt McCormick said...

Right on the money, DeStefano. In my drug experimentation days, I was frequently struck by how powerful the feelings of poignancy and meaningfulness could be, especially about completely pointless stuff. If you can put a compound into your system and your brain's reaction is to have staggering feelings of hyperreligiousness, poignancy, and significance, how can we trust those feelings at face value in other cases where they happen?

Truth Seeker said...

So, has anybody here read any works on the philosophy and methodology of history, and then checked to see how NT historians fit in with the rest of the historical community of scholarship? All historians use criteria to determine whether or not someone was lying, or being fanciful, or what have you. I challenge anyone here to find any article or book written by a professional NT scholar that just has "faith" that Paul is a saint of a writer, and so just puts aside the criteria all historians use to establish credible historical facts, and takes what Paul says as gospel.

Speaking of double standards, if you familiarize yourself with the historical community across the board of ancient history, you find that no community has as skeptical a group of historians as the NT. So, if you want to speak of double standards, it is those in the NT community who have an unjustified anti-supernatural bias (they offer no reasons to think miracles are not possible or incapable of being identified) that then colours there assessment of the NT. They assume that the NT is guilty unitl proven innocent a prior. Others are even worse. They study little to know literature on the subject of NT studies and conclude without seriously looking at the historical reasons people think Paul wasn't analagous to Joseph Smith, or some deluded religous fanatic, that Paul was a fanatic. No doubt, if many of you are honest with yourselves, you will realize that there is some serious confirmation bias going on so far with this discussion. You might be right, but so far you can't explain historically why you are right. Again, in order to respond, please do adequate historical research, then let's talk about how history should interact with this most fascinating article on the neural substrates of religious experience.

McCormick: Double standards saturate pro Christian Bible scholarship. This is a sloppy assertion. Can you cite some examples from professional NT historians that you surely have in mind when you assert this.


Truth Seeker said...

McCormick writes: If you can put a compound into your system and your brain's reaction is to have staggering feelings of hyperreligiousness, poignancy, and significance, how can we trust those feelings at face value in other cases where they happen?

William Lane Craig writes: The sort of religious experiences which have been artificially induced by brain stimulus have been more akin to pantheistic religious experiences, a sense of oneness with the All, rather than Christian experience of God's personal presence and love. But more importantly, the fact that a non-veridical experience can be induced which is qualitatively identical to a veridical experience does absolutely nothing to undermine the fact that there are veridical experiences and that we are rational in taking our experiences to be veridical. Otherwise, one would have to say that because neuroscientists can artificially cause us to see and hear things that aren't really there, our senses of sight and hearing are unreliable or untrustworthy! Just because a neurologist could stimulate my brain to make me think that I'm having an experience of God is no proof at all that on some occasion when he is not stimulating my brain that I do not have a genuine experience of God.

Matt McCormick said...

My book manuscript: Atheism and the Case Against Christ just went to the publisher. You'll find it very interesting. Although I suspect that even without reading it, you're already rejecting its arguments.

By far, the most self-incriminating, revealing, and circular thing I've seen Craig say:

After seeing this, I realized that we don't really need to take his arguments seriously--he's openly resolved to construct a rationalization for Jesus no matter what evidence comes up. Reason must be subordinated to faith, which means that no reasoning actually supports his religious views, and no reasoning could dissuade him from it, even hypothetically. Consider the difference between a lawyer who is dedicated to defending his mob client at all costs with no regard to truth or justice, and someone who is prepared to accept alternative conclusions if that's what the evidence indicates. Now consider where Craig falls in this video.

The Ellipsis said...

Hey Matt, I am an agnostic and I've read a few of your posts, but not enough to get a truly good idea of what you believe in general. Just as a general question, are you more of the opinion that there is ABSOLUTELY no god, or that there is PROBABLY no god and that we should not act as if there is? Because to me, from an entirely logical but not incredibly well versed point of view, it would seem that there could be a god in the universe for all we know. Matters of personal experience (which you address in this post) cannot all be proven to have nothing to do with a god or something similar, can they? I mean, I sincerely doubt that mad men are really messiahs, but couldn't it feasibly be so? And also, there is the belief set of apathetic agnosticism to be taken into account,(there may be a god, but if so he doesn't affect us) as well as how exactly we should define a "god."