Close Encounters of the Temporal Kind
Whether you are a believer or non-believer, having a sudden and unexpected religious experience can be life changing. But encountering God for the first time may be due to causes more earthly than supernatural. Scans taken during religious experience reveal how neurons in the temporal lobes light up in the brains of those who claim to have had a talk with the Almighty.
Exactly what goes on in the brains of people who claim to have had an unscheduled brush with God has largely remained a mystery. Neurological studies are of necessity based on scans taken too long after the event to tell us very much.
However, an Israeli team of scientists may have caught God in the act, with one man’s experience of an encounter captured at the very moment he was undergoing a brain scan. Researchers at Hadassah Hebrew University have reported on a rare case when they were treating a patient for a form of epilepsy. The patient suddenly announced that he not only saw, but was also speaking with God.
This intriguing case study offers an insight into what might be going on in the brains of those who have made similar claims.
Dr Shahar Arzy and Dr Roey Schurr were reportedly treating a 46-year-old man for temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) carrying out a battery of tests including an electro-encephalogram (EEG) that measured his brain activity. In the run up to the tests the patient, a Jewish man who had reportedly never been especially religious, had stopped taking anticonvulsant medication for seizures.
Intense religious experiences are well documented throughout history, with recorded instances of smells, such as roses, incense and other sensory events accompanying visions. Similar visions, including smells, have also been reported by patients afflicted with certain types of epilepsy as ‘auras’ that precede their seizures. But during these latest tests, the researchers report the man froze and stared at the ceiling for several minutes, saying he felt like ‘God was approaching him’, before exclaiming ‘Adonai’, the name of the Hebrew God.
The patient then removed the wires from his head before touring the hospital in an attempt to recruit followers, saying ‘God has sent me to you’, convinced his creator had singled him out to bring redemption to fellow patients and medical staff.
Just before the incident, the doctors measured a spike in activity in the patient’s left prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with a number of higher functions, including planning and perception, that has been previously linked to religious and mystical experiences.
According to The Epilepsy Foundation, case studies of patents experiencing TLE seizures report the world seeming more real, and a dreamlike, disconnected state, with audio and visual ‘warning’ hallucinations. The Israeli team believe their patient suffered the visions as a result of a psychotic episode following a seizure.
Neuroskeptic explains that the patient’s experience of seeing and being chosen by God bears a resemblance to key religious figures, from Moses to Jesus to Mohammed. To that first division list could be added St. Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he was known before he had his own epiphany on the road to Damascus. And then there’s Joan of Arc and St. Bernadette of Lourdes, and… well the list goes on.
Neuroskeptic wrote ‘Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of those leaders had epilepsy, but it is interesting that this phenomenology can occur in this disease.’
The story was first published in the journal Epilepsy and Behaviour.