This is your brain on God

From: Philip Jonkers (
Date: Sat Jul 28 2001 - 11:47:59 BST

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    The next posting is an article from 1999 on the effects of electro-magnetic
    fields generating spiritual experiences. I've stripped it from superfluous
    journalistic parts to keep the focus on the significance it disseminates.
    Nevertheless, if you want to read it in full, visit:

    The story is about the journalist Jack Hitt visiting the neuroscientist
    Persinger, whom I know from Blackmore's `The Meme-Machine' (chapter 15),
    which has an interesting theory on how religious and other spiritual
    experiences can be explained in terms of electromagnetic disturbances in the
    temporal lobe. Persinger has constructed a device that can generate
    such spiritual feelings in a test person. The outcome of possible
    spiritual sensations seems to depend on two factors: the mental fitness
    the test person (stability), and what relevant memes have infected him
    or gained dominant grounds.

    Comments of mine are non-labeled, the original text I've
    labeled with a `*'.

    Anyway, please read on:


    *Michael Persinger has a vision - the Almighty isn't dead, he's an energy
    *field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.

    *By Jack Hitt

    *I'm taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual
    *consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a
    *neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.
    *His theory is that the sensation described as "having a religious experience"
    *is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain's feverish activities.
    *Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere
    *of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region
    *presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere,
    *the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent
    *entity, the mind generates a "sensed presence."

    *Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me
    *and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this
    *ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to
    *use - Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some
    *subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the
    *presence as one's grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with
    *more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds
    *more like a standard alien-abduction story.

    The response of the subject to the test seems to be highly correlated
    with the identity of the memes/memeplexes adopted that currently runs
    `en vogue'. Which is, of course, small wonder for strong memes
    (e.g. God-memes,UFOs), dominate the brain. `Meeting up' with a deceased
    loved one may be possible through strong bonding and as such the brain
    is flushed with his/her memories (especially if he/she has recently perished).

    *It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery
    *synapses, but modern neuroscience isn't shy about defining our most sacred
    *notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our
    *impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work
    *practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He
    *believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might
    *describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations,
    *near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.

    *As the work piles up, many things that we hold to be unique aspects of the
    *"self" are reduced to mere tics of cranial function. Take laughter.
    *According to Vilayanur Ramachandran, professor of neuroscience at
    *UC San Diego, laughter is just the brain's way of signaling that a fearful
    *circumstance is not really so worrisome. At a conference earlier this year,
    *he posited that the classic banana-peel pratfall is funny only when the
    *victim gets up, and that we laugh to alert "other members of [our] kin that,
    *'Look, there has been a false alarm here; don't waste your resources rushing
    *to help.'" He calls laughter "nature's OK signal."

    Well, true but not complete I'd say. Laughing is a healthy way to release
    tension, stress. Fearful situations generate stress alright, but this is
    just an extreme end of the spectrum. What about gloating for instance?
    Comedies are practically build on that, often without having anything
    to do with fearful situations. Humans, apart from perhaps some primate
    species, are quite unique to be able to laugh. We laugh because the
    healthy big human brain easily builds up stress during a wealth of
    different types of events that beg for relieve. This happens when you

    *Of course, this type of deromanticizing has been going on for a while
    *- Persinger's brain manipulations have crude antecedents in the 1950s,
    *the roaring decade for behaviorism. Back then, Yale physiologist
    *Jose Delgado earned national renown by implanting electrodes into the
    *brains of live animals and attaching them to a "stimoceiver" under the skull.
    *In a technique called ESB - electronic stimulation of the brain -
    *Delgado sent radio signals through the electrodes to control the animal.
    *In one demonstration in the early 1960s, he used his electronic gizmo
    *to halt a charging bull.

    *Delgado's relatively coarse stunts were a long way from Persinger's quest
    *for the God spot, but Persinger is not the first to theorize that the
    *Creator exists only in the complex landscape of the human noggin. In his
    *controversial 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of
    *the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist, argued that
    *the brain activity of ancient people - those living roughly 3,500 years
    *ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness such as logic,
    *reason, and ethics - would have resembled that of modern schizophrenics.
    *Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics, the ancients heard voices,
    *summoned up visions, and lacked the sense of metaphor and individual
    *identity that characterizes a more advanced mind. He said that some of
    *these ancestral synaptic leftovers are buried deep in the modern brain,
    *which would explain many of our present-day sensations of God or

    Early humans, with their just acquired big brains, may have excelled in
    vital cultural activities such as generating useful agricultural memes
    and hunting skills. But an artifact of the development of this incessantly
    active big brain is that, when all necessary manual labor was done, the
    clumsy brain had ample opportunity to concoct all sorts of irrational
    non-sense that could have been prevented by adoption of proper memetic
    contents (such as logic, reason, ethics, etc.). In a positive sense, I
    believe art has evolved so. By the way, since the human brain did not evolve
    significantly further in 3,500 some years, the above passage seems to
    support the view that indeed logic has a memetic component. Due to
    technological applications (e.g. stone age tools and food-processing
    devices) the faculty of logic had to be necessarily present though desperately
    under nourished, particularly during times of leisure.

    *Among practicing neuroscientists, there is no overarching consensus on
    *whether such notions are correct. Persinger is certainly out on a frontier
    *where theory meets the boldest sort of speculation, but there's nothing
    *inherently bizarre about his methods or the questions he's asking.
    *William Calvin, a professor of behavioral sciences at the University of
    *Washington in Seattle, says that Persinger's line of inquiry is no more
    *mysterious than another pursuit that intrigues neuroscientists: trying to
    *understand the sensations of déjà vu or its opposite, jamais vu
    *- the feeling, during a familiar routine, that we're doing it for the
    *first time. Maybe these feelings, like God, are just more fritzing in
    *the electricity arcing about our brains.

    *Persinger's experiments and resulting theories suggest some new ideas
    *about our waning 20th century, which began with Thomas Edison convincing
    *the world to cocoon itself inside electrically wired shelters, throbbing
    *with pulses of electromagnetic fields. Granted, those fields are quite
    *weak, arguably too tiny to affect our physical bodies in ways Liburdy
    *had suggested. But what about Persinger's notion that such fields may
    *be tinkering with our consciousness?

    *Is it a coincidence that this century - known as the age of anxiety,
    *a time rife with various hysterias, the era that gave birth to
    *existentialism - is also when we stepped inside an electromagnetic bubble
    *and decided to live there? We have never quite comprehended that we walk
    *about in a sea of mild electromagnetism just as we do air.
    *It is part of our atmosphere, part of the containing bath our consciousness
    *swims in. Now we are altering it, heightening it, condensing it. The bubble
    *is being increasingly shored up with newer, more complicated fields:
    *computers, pagers, cell phones. Every day, entrepreneurs invent more novel
    *ways to seduce us into staying inside this web. The Internet is well named.

    *Naturally, many people would presume that such a change must be a malignant
    *force when directed at the delicate gossamer of consciousness. Yet evolution
    *is a tricky business. Accidental changes often turn out to be lifesaving
    *preparations for some other condition that could never have been predicted.

    *A few might see a world of possibility in Persinger's theories. His booth
    *has helped us discover and confirm our true predicament. "Seeing God" is
    *really just a soothing euphemism for the fleeting awareness of ourselves
    *alone in the universe: a look in that existential mirror. The
    *"sensed presence" - now easily generated by a machine pumping our brains
    *with electromagnetic spirituality - is nothing but our exquisite and
    *singular self, at one with the true solitude of our condition, deeply
    *anxious. We're itching to get out of here, to escape this tired old
    *environment with its frayed carpets, blasted furniture, and shabby old God.
    *Time to move on and discover true divinity all over again.

    *Jack Hitt is the author of Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the
    *Pilgrim's Route Into Spain.

    *Copyright © 1993-2001 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.

    *Copyright © 1994-2001 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Anybody, any comments and such on this?

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    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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