Paganism and the brain, by Rhys Chisnall

Neurotheology pentacle

Underlying ritual are complex neurological processes.

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This week we dive into the field of neurotheology with an essay by Rhys Chisnall.

Is the brain a necessary condition to having religious and mystical experiences? Is there a biological underpinning to the experiences of deities, spirits as reported by religious people? Is there a connection between the brain and consciousness of the whole as described (metaphorically) by those who have undergone mystical experience? The established science of Neuro-theology, a branch of neurology suggests that there is.

The brain is an amazingly complex organ, containing millions of neuronal connections, the product of eons of evolution by natural selection. It is through the complex interactions of these neurons, with the rest of the body and the environment that consciousness, unconsciousness, cognition, and emotions emerge (Toates, 2007) . Pretty much everything that we experience, everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think and feel is mediated through the brain; so it seems to be the case that religious and mystical experiences are no exceptions.

The neurologist and Zen Buddhist, Dr James Austin, underwent a spontaneous mystical experience while waiting for the tube in the London underground. He claimed that he saw things as they really are: that he had a sense of eternity, the sense of I, and self, had disappeared and that he had been graced with the ultimate nature of everything (Austin as cited in Begley, 2001) .

As a neurologist Austin reasoned that the parts of the brain that deal with the orientation of the self in space, separating the self from the rest of the world, had gone quiet. These functions are located within the parietal lobes at the back of the brain. The amygdala, often cited in connection with religious experience, and is most famous for its flight and fight response also monitors the surroundings for threats had ‘closed off’. Also the frontal and temporal lobes, which contain the functions of self-awareness and recognition of time, must have dropped away (Austin, 1999) .

Anatomy of the brain

Anatomy of the brain

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All this was corroborated by Dr. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili who suggested that these kinds of mystical and religious experiences seem to share common themes across all cultures. They carried out an experiment that involved the scanning of brain activity with a single photon emission computed tomography machine, SPECT for short. Essentially what they did was to scan the brains of meditating Zen Buddhists at the peak of their meditative experience, and compare these with the SPECT scans of Franciscan Nuns at the climax of their prayers.

Although both groups interpret their experiences differently the underlying experience of unity (with God or whatever) is the same. What the SPECT scans show is an increased level of activity in the prefrontal cortex, where, as you would expect the function of attention is located. However there was also a drop off in the parietal lobes; that part of the brain mentioned above which is to do with location of self in space.

Newberg concluded that it was this shutdown in this region of the brain that forces the self to associate with the entirety of the whole. In other words the meditators don’t know where they stop and the rest of the universe begins – a familiar experience for those engaged in magical operations (Begley, 2001, Newberg and Aquili, 2001) .

Interestingly Newberg argues that certain kinds of practices associated with the Craft and paganism have a direct effect on the brain. For example, drumming, dancing, invocations, rituals, scourging, sex, chanting, etc, all focus our attention onto one source of stimulation. No doubt these techniques will sound somewhat familiar to those you practice the Craft and other Occult traditions. They can also invoke heightened states of emotions within us, which seems according to Newberg, to be the key to their success.

These techniques can have the effect of stimulating the hippocampus. The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe and amongst other things is associated along with other parts of the brain with maintaining neuronal activity equilibrium. It can put the breaks on neuronal activity, limiting the flow of activity to the parietal lobes and other parts of the brain associated with religious and spiritual experiences (Begley, 2001, Newberg and D’Aqulli, 2001) . This again leads to the sense of loss of self and identification with the whole.

Bush with halo

Did Bush hear the voice of God tell him to invade Iraq?

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More often associated with religious experience is where individuals hear the voice of God, gods and spirits. Does neurology explain George W Bush’s assertion that God asked him to invade Iraq? There seems to be some evidence that it did.

The Neurologist Dr, Ramachandran suggests that religious feelings may be caused by naturally occurring activity within the temporal lobes. This is born out to some extent by Michael Persinger’s helmet, a strange device that creates an electro-magnetic field around the participant’s head so as to stimulate the temporal lobes. The result is that participants experience strange sensations, such as unseen presences; even within arch atheist and psychologist Susan Blackmore when she wore it as reported on a recent Radio 4 programme. This part of the brain is also associated with speech perception.

The Psychologist Richard Bentall suggests that when people hear the voice of God, they are actually misinterpreting their own inner voice. The Brocca’s area of the brain, which is associated with speech production, turns on, and when sensory information is restricted such as in mediation and in the use of other altered states of consciousness techniques, such as prayer, the practitioner may be fooled into thinking that the inner voice has an external source. This is also likely to happen in time of high stress and heightened emotions such as in times of jeopardy (Bentall, 2000) .

There is also evidence that the anterior cingulated part of the brain activates when people hear actual sounds in the environment and also when they hallucinate sound, but not while they imagine hearing something. This part of the brain may be responsible for deciding whether a sound is external or not, and if it is appropriately activated it may fool us into believing that our own inner voice comes from an external supernatural source (Begley, 2001) .

Does all this mean that mystical and religious experiences are all the result of biology? I would suggest not, though the evidence does suggest that the brain is a necessary condition of spiritual experience, as it is a necessary condition for all aspects of our lives, but it is not a sufficient condition. Our experience of numinous depends not just on our biology, though it underpins it, but also on our complex interactions with our environment, including the enormous complexity of the culture in which we live.

Within our culture we encounter the myths (the metaphors) and the science and philosophy that we use to interpret our experiences, enabling us to weave our personal patterns into the warp and weft of the world. It is a two way process, the metaphor of myth inspires within us spiritual experiences, and we reinterpret them in accordance with these myths thus socially constructing our complex realities.

This may mean that mystical and religious experiences are not mere wishful thinking, but could be rooted within the natural world with potentially life changing consequences. In other words they are genuine experiences that really do matter. As to whether this biological underpinning refutes or confirms the literal existence of supernatural beings, or the literal existence of other levels of reality, that is for you as intelligent people to decide.

Austin, J, (2001) , Zen and the Brain, MIT
Begley, S, (2001) , Your Brain and Religion: Mystic Visions or Brain Circuits at Work, Newsweek
Bentall, R, (2000) , Hallucinatory Experiences, in (eds, E. Cardena, S. Jay Lynn, S. Krippner) Varieties of Anomalous Experiences, Examining the Scientific Evidence, American Psychological Association
D’Aquili, E, Newberg, A, Rause, (2001) , Why God won’t Go Away, Baltimore Books
Toates, F, (2007) , Biological Processes and Psychological Explanations in (eds. D, Meill, A, Phoneix and K, Thomas, Mapping Psychology, Open University

Essay originally published at The Witches’ Voice, Feb. 14, 2010

The author

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Rhys Chisnall

Rhys Chisnall grew up in the Suffolk countryside and as such has a deep interest in nature and wildlife.  He works as a lecturer at Otley College of Agriculture and Horticulture, specifically with special needs students, and is currently studying for a degree with the Open University in Philosophy and Psychology.  He has been interested in Paganism since his teen years and was lucky enough to be trained by a coven who takes a naturalistic approach to the Craft.  He later joined that coven and now runs a training group for those interested in initiatory Witchcraft.

4 Comments on “Paganism and the brain, by Rhys Chisnall

  1. Good read. It sums up most of what I’ve read on it pretty well. I wouldn’t of been able to keep it as short as you’ve managed if I tried.

  2. I had been planning a post similar to this, but when I read Rhys’ writing I knew he could do it better.

  3. I think it’s worth pointing out that Bentall’s “God Helmet” has been pretty well discredited. It doesn’t seem to reliably provoke any kind of spiritual experience, and the mechanism by which it would do so is questionable at best. The sensations reported by some people who wear it are likely better attributed to the fact that they are expecting to have such sensations (psychosomatic effect).

    Interesting, although Susan Blackmore reported some kind of sensation, Richard Dawkins also tried the helmet (and stated he was quite hopeful to finally experience what religious people experience) but felt nothing.

    To date, no device or scientific procedure has been invented which credibly causes spiritual experiences (which is not to say there won’t be in the future).

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