In a chapter called “God and the Limbic System” (in Phantoms In The Brain), the brilliant neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, presents what he thinks may be the “first brain experiment ever done on religion directly” (p. 186). His own interest was sparked when he heard what happened when Dr. Michael Persinger, the Canadian psychologist — while experimenting with a transcendental magnetic stimulator — chose to stimulate part of his own temporal lobes. To Dr. Persinger’s amazement, he, as he would put it, experienced God for the first time in his life.

Perhaps even more impressive to V.S. Ramachandran, was that Dr. Persinger had never been known to suffer from temporal lobe seizures. He was, oddly enough, just a normal guy. He was unlike those patients with epileptic seizures which originate in the left temporal lobe and can lead to intense spiritual experiences, experiences which can spill over into the non-seizure part of the brain. Such a person, V.S. Ramachandran tells us, was Dostoyevsky.

Ingeniously, he lays out the critical thinking leading up to his daring experiment. He knows that the limbic system is geared mainly toward the experience and expressions of emotions and that knowledge about the function of the limbic system has come from patients who have suffered from epileptic seizures originating in this part of the brain. “Focal, epileptic seizures, however (as opposed to grand mal) can remain confined largely to a single small patch of brain.” He notes that in the limbic system, it can happen that “feelings are on fire” (p. 179). (Women have been known to experience orgasm) and on occasion there can even be the ‘feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God” (p.179). Although such feelings typically last for a few seconds each time, they can permanently alter a patient’s personality. Nevertheless, they remain a minority phenomenon, “an all or nothing phenomenon.”

A concept that may be key in understanding this is kindling: the process whereby a sufficiently intense stimulation of certain neural tracts — such as can occur in an epileptic seizure-can place them in a state of elevated readiness and receptivity (‘salience”). These changes can give rise to what some neurologists have called the “temporal lobe personality.” Such patients have heightened emotions and can read the most grandiose significance in the most trivial of events. They tend to be “humorless, full of self-importance, and to maintain elaborate diaries that record quotidian events in elaborate detail — a trait called hypergraphia” (p.180).

Such a patient, V.S. Ramachandran notes, was Paul, a thirty-two-year-old assistant manager of a local Goodwill store who claimed to have had his first seizure when he was eight years old. A few years later he had several additional seizures that transformed his entire life. V.S. Ramachandran wondered if an explanation lay in kindling: what might happen if spurious signals stemming from limbic seizure activity were to spill over and travel to sensory centers (vision and hearing). Then “every object and event — not just salient ones — would become imbued with deep significance so that the patient would see ‘the universe in a grain of sand’ and hold ‘infinity in the palm of his hand’” (p.183).

V.S. Ramachandran decided to test directly the hypothesis of kindling — “ the notion that kindling has indiscriminately strengthened all connections from the temporal cortex to the amygdala.” If correct, all objects presented to a subject, whether trivial or significant, would elicit an approximately equal emotional response in the limbic system as measured by the GSR (galvanic skin response).

To test this hypothesis, V.S Ramachandran invited two colleagues, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy, to recruit two patients suffering from manifest “temporal lobe epilepsy.” The volunteer patients were then seated in front of a computer, with electrodes attached to their hands. Random samples of various types of words and images — ordinary inanimate objects, both familiar and unfamiliar faces, sexually stimulating pictures, four letter words, scenes of graphic violence, religious, iconic words such as ‘God” –were shown. If the kindling hypothesis were correct, there would be a more or less strong response to each of the categories. But to their “amazement,” V.S. Ramachandran and his colleagues discovered an elevated response primarily to religious words and icons. Not only was there no general enhancement of all categories but, surprisingly, there was “a selective amplification of response to religious words” (p. 186).

As a result of this experiment, it was now clear to V.S. Ramachandran that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and, at least in some epileptics, become demonstrably hyperactive. He concludes philosophically that we are a long way from showing “that there is a ‘God module’ in the brain that might be genetically specified, but to me the exciting idea is that one can even begin to address questions about God and spirituality scientifically” (p. 188).

From the standpoint of our theme, we can see that V.S. Ramachandran is painstaking in his efforts to be fair to religion. Could God be speaking to us directly through the God module, he wonders? Is there even such a thing as a God module? He hesitates to hazard a guess here and he is equally reluctant to label as unhealthy, those baffling autistic savants, who display extraordinary, if limited, specialized talents. In this regard, he is like Oliver Sacks, who time and again has given us astonishingly empathic tales of patients who have been neurologically traumatized; patients he uncannily refuses to see as psychically damaged and deficient (see his latest remarkable offering, “ A Neurologist’s Notebook: A Bolt From The Blue, “ the unforgettable story of a successful orthopedic surgeon, hit by lightning, who thereafter inexplicably develops an unprecedented, all-consuming, lifelong mystical passion for music (July 23, 2007 issue of The New Yorker).

Few temporal lobe epileptics have been as noteworthy as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and none has ever written as memorably on the conversion experience. The preeminent Dostoyevsky scholar, Joseph Frank, is right when he says that the character of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is the single greatest study of the inner torment of the epileptic in all of Western literature.

My only point is to reiterate that therapists do not encounter conversion experiences like this. Even world famous experts like V.S. Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks, who specialize in the outer limits of human behavior, rarely see such patients. So what do therapists see? They see patients, the great majority of whom not only believe there is something more to the world than the physical — but who very much want there to be who are palpably confused when it comes to articulating what this “something more” is; who have only a dream-like conception of what the afterlife might be; who are ambivalent at best when it comes to what heaven and hell might be even if the religion they believe in tells them explicitly what it is; who conceive of God, when they think of Him, essentially as a kind of evanescent presence, an oceanic peacefulness that comforts and envelopes them; who almost never look forward to the afterlife, but invariably fear it; and who rarely reflect on their own behavior — except when they feel they are deserving of genuine punishment or rebuke — in terms of what God may or may not think of them.

What therefore most strikes me about patients who claim to be in communion with a personal God is not the hypocrisy but the ordinariness of their behavior. I can detect no significant difference between patients who are religious and those who are not. They are not discernibly more moral, law abiding, honest, conscientious, trustworthy, empathic or kind.
They do not necessarily make better husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They do not make more noteworthy contributions to the community at large. They do not exhibit healthier self-esteem, stand up to adversity with greater resolve, nor do they manifest more faith in either themselves or other people.

The question arises, then, why not? Why isn’t someone presumably in direct contact on a fairly regular basis with a supremely greater source of spiritual strength, manifestly more empowered than his or her less spiritually nourished neighbor? You would think that behavior that is supernaturally guided or inspired would in some way be demonstrable in the real world, clearly distinguishable from the mere secular kind, but such is not the case. In fact, in many ways, what we see is the reverse. The closer people come to a mystical Oneness with God, the more seriously out of touch with reality they seem. The more radically they approach the evangelical goal of “living in the Spirit,” the less psychologically balanced they seem. The more they attain a state of permanent religious ecstasy, the more they resemble a “temporal lobe personality.” (Of course, this not to deny there are genuine, saint-like people, but only that they are extraordinarily rare.)

The irony, however, seems lost on V.S. Ramachandran that patients such as Paul who — unlike the rest of us__ could see “the universe in a grain of sand and hold infinity in the palm of his hand,” simultaneously (as he himself notes) “tend to be humorless, full of self-importance and to maintain elaborate diaries that record quotidian events in elaborate detail — a trait called hypergraphia.”

Can there be a greater contradiction than seeing the universe in a grain of sand and being humorless and full of self-importance? Lost sight of is that there are no shortcuts to genuine spiritual profundity. There is a world of difference between the conversion experience of a William James — one of the greatest and most enduring of American geniuses — and a temporal lobe personality such as Paul. Even more illuminating is the dramatic example of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: an epileptic who as a young political prisoner in Siberia was first sentenced to be executed before a firing squad, then diabolically granted an eleventh hour reprieve, and would subsequently develop a lifelong spiritual quest. Yet compare how Dostoyevsky went on to explore the fathomless depths of religious symbolism with the pointless grandiose pronouncements of the typical temporal lobe personality. Look at the incredible spiritiual complexity of the epileptic Prince Myshkin in comparison with the platitudinous transcendentalism of a Paul. It misses the point to say Dostoyevsky was a genius and the others were not.

The point is that while both may have begun with a traumatic injury to their brain, and perhaps permanent shock to their nervous system, only one person went beyond the neurological event (Maslow’s most basic, biological need) to developmentally transform what had happened.

If we consider Bollas’ model of the transformational object, or V.S Ramachandran’s model of a possible God module — as a tool for understanding the conversion experience — we should remember that both are rooted in a primitive biological and psychological substratum: Bollas in the earliest mother-infant dyad and V.S. Ramachandran in hypothetically specialized religious tracts of the brain. Both models, in other words, begin somewhere at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That may be why the majority of people who claim to have conversion experiences strike one as being so often out of whack — when measured against the lofty sentiments they swear by.

One thing a therapist soon learns is that there is little romance in being emotionally, psychologically, biologically or neurologically impaired. But I can hear now the insistent voice of the ever vigilant believer, quick to defend the rights of the transcendentalist:

“If you are looking for evidence of communication with God, you are looking for meaning, not examples of interpersonal behavior. If you honestly want to find manifestations of the spirit, you have to start with the spiritual side of life. You can’t do that unless you are first open to the possibility of a spiritual presence. If you begin with the assumption that you can only believe in that which has been proven, you can, of course, nullify spirituality but you are doing so by fiat, not reason.”

Someone who considers herself very much open to the possibility of supernatural presences is Mary Roach, an adventurous investigative reporter who is not afraid to go where others fear to tread. In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, she explores some of the biggest questions of all. She starts out, she tells us, as a skeptic who wishes there was an afterlife, but who needs evidence either for or against it. In the past she believes that skeptics have tended to approach questions regarding paranormal phenomena as though they already knew the answer. She is determined to be more open-minded (perhaps overlooking that she herself seems to begin with the assumption that skeptics traditionally have been biased against the afterlife).

At the end of the book, Mary Roach asks herself forthrightly, “So, what do I believe after a year?” She has rigorously investigated the claims of a rich medley of paranormal researchers-from cranks who are obsessed with precisely weighing the soul to data-driven, reputable physical scientists employing the most high tech equipment available to detect the faintest electromagnetic emanations coming from the other side. Her conclusion, she says, is that she has wound up believing not that “something more” exists but that there is “something more that science doesn’t know.” She is especially impressed with reports of “near death” experiences: the dying mafia gangster, for example, who experiencing for the very first time the presence of God and His unconditional love, miraculously recovers and subsequently leaves his crime family. She repeats the oft-noted observation that such experiences are life-changing and echoes William James when she points to their undeniable pragmatic effects.

Yet, I would like to comment, that is hardly surprising. If the profound need underlying the universal yearning for an afterlife is the need in times of dire extremity for cosmic rescue and love, then — the uncanny experience of such a need being serendipitously answered — cannot help but reinforce the belief in such a Cosmic Being. From that perspective, “near death” experiences can qualify as legitimate conversion experiences.

And from a philosophical standpoint, it could be objected that Mary Roach is choosing to conclude her study with yet another variant of the fallacious “God of the gaps” argument (the claim that any time you run up against something that baffles you, you have grounds for smuggling in a supernatural explanation of one sort or another). In contrast to what Mary Roach is saying, however, science is based on the belief that there is always “something more that they (science) doesn’t know.” If that were not the case, there would be no point to further investigation. It is a cardinal axiom of science that every answer brings in its wake a host of new and deeper questions.

Admittedly, it can sound profound, mysterious and provocative to say “there is something more that science doesn’t know.” The implication is that there are truths waiting to be discovered that we cannot presently conceive of or imagine, and that such truths, if discovered, may one day overturn even the most cherished assumption of contemporary scientists. But science already knows this, indeed such has been the history of scientific discoveries.

The question therefore is not whether there is something more to be known, but when “something more” is discovered, as it is every day in science, will it prove so radical as to constitute a revolution; i.e., the long sought-after proof that consciousness survives in the afterlife? Or will it instead be something that — as have most great discoveries in the past — demolish one or two overdue and outdated theories while leaving intact the essential foundation of science, which, ultimately, always seems to advance?

Finally, if Mary Roach’s implication is, as it seems to be, that one day the “something more that science doesn’t know” may shake up the foundation of science — where is the proof of that, other than pointing to some intriguing (God of the gaps) oddities? We would do well to remind ourselves of that wise old scientific adage, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” ( which, by the way, is just what no paranormal investigator has ever been able to supply).

Gerald Alper

Author of

God and Therapy,

What we believe when no one is watching.

Author. Psychotherapist. Writing about psychology for all to read. I also interview scientists.