By Vexen Crabtree 2015
There are some physiological and neurological causes of religious and mystical experiences. These causes are purely physical, and are (now) understood scientifically - we know how they affect the brain, but in history our lack of understanding has resulted in a wide range of religious customs and beliefs1. Some are the effects of disease or dysfunction, whilst others are the result of human behaviour: (1) Diseases effecting the brain, eyes or our nervous system, (2) neurochemical imbalances, (3) fasting1, (4) exhaustion, (5) sleep and sensory deprivation2,3, (6) chanting, (7) practices of extreme austerity and (8) ritualistic behaviour and (9) ritualistic drug use4, can all induce hallucinations and other strange states of mind1.
For example, hallucinations caused by eye problems can result in surprisingly specific visions of grotesque faces with large eyes and teeth, blood running upwards, and costumed figures5 as our brain tries to interpret errant inputs6. But most hallucinations start directly in the brain and most of them are subtle and not just a matter of visual phenomenon. The same experiences can be triggered artificially by neurosurgeons, producing varied visions from mundane events such as smelling something to out of body experiences. Experimenters can consistently generate deeply meaningful religious experiences which would be utterly convincing if participants didn't know it was being generated artificially.
People interpret these episodes in terms of their local culture - Western Christians don't receive revelations of Buddhist enlightenment nor witness their previous lives, and conversely Eastern Daoists don't receive images of the Virgin Mary7. This makes it clear that mystical experiences are a result of culture and psychology, and not conduits to fundamental truths.
People can experience things which are convincing to them, but, which are not based on reality. An extract from "The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs" by Vexen Crabtree (2008):
“There are many neurological and physiological causes of odd experiences in our lives. These range from ordinary tricks of the eye5 through to repeated minor epileptic fits that cause nothing more than visual (or aural) hallucinations combined with emotional cues. Many supernatural experiences can be artificially induced through neural electro-stimulation, proving their mundane basis8. Strange and unusual experiences often give rise to strange and unusual beliefs9 especially for those people are not inclined towards finding natural explanations for events. Experiments have found that a person's "psychological tendencies may also be used to predict exact types of 'unexplained' phenomena in which they are likely to believe" and that those who display signs of dissociation are likely to see "a given stimulus item as a paranormal creature, whether Bigfoot or an alien"10.
For example during night terrors, our brain is still suppressing bodily movement and it feels we're being forced down on to the bed, complete with much anxiety and fear. Some people have such attacks multiple times. The belief that this is a demonic attack seems natural to many and even after explaining the physiological and natural causes of night terrors, many continue to believe in a supernatural source. Of course, this is ridiculed by those who know that such attacks are really alien investigations of the Human body. Both explanations are foiled however by neuroscientists who understand that the cause of these experiences is biochemical in nature.
Cultural expectations play a large part in the interpretation of personal events, meaning that the resultant beliefs vary according to geographical region. We all find rational arguments to explain away those who experience things that contradict our own interpretation of reality - in secret, when we find people who have experienced things that we don't believe in, we all think we can explain others' experiences better than they themselves can explain them. Investigations into the physiological causes of strange beliefs comes from an ancient line of skepticism. In "The Supernatural?" by Lionel A. Weatherley (1891)11 the author intelligently outlines many such investigations - and that was well before modern neurology started making its amazing strides towards understanding the sources of experiences. Despite this knowledge, the masses remain generally unconvinced, and stick to ages-old cultural and subjective beliefs. The Christian Pentecostals have a saying, "the man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with a doctrine"12, meaning that rationality subverts itself to experience. In total, we cannot entirely trust our experiences nor those of others, and more careful investigation is needed by all.”
Clearly the range of Human experience gives rise to many contradictions. Not all experiences can be entirely true. We know that the evident facts are sometimes not quite so factual. We have all experienced things that actually did not happen. We have dreamt, tripped, imagined and forgotten things leading us to conclusions and sternly felt beliefs in things that are not real.
Hallucinations are the biggest cause of strongly held supernatural beliefs. Contrary to popular opinion, hallucinations are not particularly rare and they are not the reserve of a few odd people. Most people have hallucinations at some point. Eye disease and medical problems with the eye can lead to a surprisingly specific range of hallucinatory experiences, including seeing (in particular) grotesque faces with large eyes and teeth, costumed figures, various patterns, and Dr Ffytche who has headed up scientific investigations on this topic, "believes the narrow repertoire of images seen in hallucinations is related to the way visual systems are organised in the brain [and he] suggested that sightings of ghosts and near-death experiences could have the same biological cause"5.
Many hallucinations start in the brain, rather than in the eye. They can involve all the senses; sight, sound, touch, taste, although most the time an episode involves just one sense. Some go completely unnoticed. Some are vague; some are very specific. Some feel real and some do not. They can be caused by epileptic fits (including ones that have no impact on the rest of the body), problems with blood sugar and nutrition, illness, exhaustion, mental stress, and by a wide range of hallucinogenic drugs. They can also be triggered artificially using electrodes on the surface of the brain or deeper within it, and, what we know from many such studies is that the range of experiences produced by abnormal stimulation of neurones is incredibly varied, involving mundane events such as smelling something, to out of body experiences and strong religious experiences. The fact that such experiences can result from the stimulation of the brain is profound, and is a serious piece of evidence against the idea that we require souls to explain consciousness, or that the underlying cause are external spirits or gods.
A range of hallucinations that result from Charles Bonnet syndrome are of the kind that feel "forced upon" sufferers with no sense of familiarity or emotion13. It feels that they come from an external source - such as a telepathic human or spiritual ancestor, an angel or demon, or from aliens. These forms of hallucinations have formed the bedrock of many-a-mystics repertoire of tales, and even, through active individuals, resulted in the foundations of entire religions.
Finally, some religious cultures have adopted routine and ritualistic drug-use as part of the religious life, for example "magic mushrooms, ayuesca and peyote had all been used for thousands of years by natives of the Americas in religious rituals, and were essential to their cultural understandings of the world"4.
By 2002 Dr Persinger had tested a theory on 2,000 patients, subjecting them to a weak magnetic field to their right hemisphere (or to both hemispheres), and monitored results with an EEG. This was performed in particular on patients who had experienced above-average numbers of epileptic episodes. 80% of them had various kinds of supernatural experience which were "so profound they would be life-changing had they not understood the mechanistic underpinnings of what they had experienced". The experiences included visions of Jesus Christ, Elijah and the Virgin Mary, prophet Mohammed or a Sky Spirit, depending on their cultural background. They also had out-of-body experiences, some felt they were floating, and many had a feeling of great meaningfulness associated with the event.15
Dr. Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal, USA, done further experiments in 2006, including placing 15 nuns into an MRI machine and inducing mystical experiences. Comparing their feelings and experiences to other groups of people, he concluded that "if you are an atheist and you live a certain kind of experience, you will relate it to the magnificence of the universe. If you are a Christian, you will associate it with God"7.
In short, they had visions and mystical experiences that they would otherwise think were real if they didn't know it was artificially induced. We know that electromagnetic activity in the brain is absolutely tied up with our own self, thoughts and consciousness, and this is further evidence (aside from history, psychology, etc) that the experience of many mystical things and god has a basis in physiological cause and effect, with the physical cause preceding the experience. Epileptics and other experiments have also shown that temporal lobe imbalances cause distortions in our perception of reality. People with increased temporal lobe sensitivity experience stronger and more profound events during similar experiments. It is very telling that a person's existing knowledge causes them to interpret their feelings in radically different ways: it is clearly their brain that is priming the episode, with the content coming from the brain itself and not via a mystical conduit to a supernatural realm.
Hallucinations can be caused by our own behaviours and lifestyle. This includes fasting, sensory deprivation, chanting and other related practices of austerity, often undertaken by those actively seeking religious experiences.1
“Others consider fasting in earlier cultures to have arisen as a result of the discovery that it could induce a state of susceptibility to visions and dreams. [...] Within some of the mystery cults, fasting was incorporated as part of the ritual preparation for the incubation sleep that, by means of dreams, was to provide answers to specific questions and needs of the person.16 [...] Both Greek philosophers (e.g. Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists) and Hebrew prophets believed that fasting could produce trancelike states through which revelations would occur. Plutarch narrates how the priests of ancient Egypt abstained from meat and wine in order to receive and interpret divine revelations17 and Iamblichus tells how the prophetess fasted three days prior to giving an oracle18. [...] According to Philo Judaeus (25 BCE-50CE), the Therapeutae, a group of Jewish contemplatives living in community, fasted as a means of purifying the spirit so that it could turn itself to more spiritual activities such as reading and study.”
Full sensory deprivation is a situation where we sit in extreme silence, darkness and extreme quiet for extended periods of time. It very rapidly becomes highly uncomfortable and results in all kinds of hallucinations and strange experiences. Our brains are simply not wired to cope with low levels of external input. Psychological experiments on sensory deprivation chambers show shocking and dramatic results. Ten days in such a chamber (the same as with sleep deprivation) results in serious and permanent psychological damage. But on less severe experiments, the chambers were modified so that the analyst could speak, at times, to the subject. The suggestibility of the subject was akin to hypnotism, only much more effective, with the subject being aware of and remembering everything that is said, but also finding themselves uncontrollably agreeing after only a day in the sensory deprivation chamber. The same effects can be achieved with less complete setups, with periods of mild sensory deprivation being a facilitator of self-induced religious experiences.2,3
A clear example can be found in the founding stories of The Bahá'í Faith. It was the year 1852 and Bahá'u'lláh found himself imprisoned "in a subterranean dungeon in Teheran's notorious Siyáh-Chál, the 'Black Pit' [...]. It was in this dungeon that Bahá'u'lláh received His revelation". Bahá'u'lláh describes the horrible dungeons that caused these hallucinations, and we can see they are clearly similar to sensory-deprivation conditions: "We were consigned for four months to a place foul beyond comparison. The dungeon was wrapped in thick darkness, and our fellow-prisoners numbered nearly a hundred and fifty souls [and] it had no other outlet than the passage by which We entered". All kinds of fevers and delusions overcome people in such situations. In keeping with what we expect, Bahá'u'lláh described the moment that his revelations began: "The breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me, and taught Me the knowledge of all that hath been".19. On the basis of this, he became the prophet and founder of an entire new religion.
Such basic science and physiology explains a wide variety of religious customs and beliefs across the world. Mircea documents how Native American tribes considered fasting being the way for receiving guidance from the Great Spirit. Moses fasted for forty days on Sinai while "talking to God" - the result was the 10 Commandments (Exodus 34:28), After a final meal, Elijah also fasted forty days as he journeyed to Horeb, where, in a cave, he experiences a range of effects, including a commandment about who is to be future king of Syria (1 Kings 19:8-15). Jesus also fasted 40 days and as a result, experienced a battle with Satan in a series of visions (Matthew 4:1-11). As a species, we have been artificially inducing mystical experiences for as long as there are records of our behaviour.
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The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
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(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation. An e-book.
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(2014) The Future of the Mind. Subtitled: "The Scientific Quest To Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK. An e-book.
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(1986) Understanding Human Behavior. 5th edition. Originally published 1974. Current version published by CBS College Publishing, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, USA. A hardback book.
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(2017) Drugs. Subtitled: "Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs". Published by UIT. An e-book.
(1992) The Bahá'í Faith. 1993 reprint. Published by Element Books Ltd, Shaftesbury, Dorset. A paperback book.