Is religiosity an epileptic phenomenon? (A Blog by Dr. M.A. Persinger)
Answer: The answer to the question, as stated, is “no”. The microscopic connections between brain cells which are associated with certain patterns of behavior (These patterns are called personality in the vernacular) are altered by conditions within the temporal lobes that encourage frequent and very specific types of electrical patterns. Only very extreme brief electrical activity that involves large volumes of the brain defines epilepsy.
Its important to differentiate three components: religious experiences, religious beliefs and religiosity (the propensity for interpreting events in terms of religious beliefs, as well as participating in religious rituals, showing reverence for religious symbols, etc.). A religious experience will include perceptions that involve multiple areas but particularly the temporal lobes because they contain the amygdala which is involved with meaning and affect and the hippocampus, which is involved with memory. However, like any other experiences, religious or spiritual events are encoded into verbal images. This involves or “recruits” the frontal portions of the brain.
Even when its subtle, the way a person labels the “cause” of a mystic experience, or what they attribute it to, is supplied by the person’s culture and learning history and this can have a significant effect on how they remember the experience hours to days later. To offer a mundane example, people often hear words that upset them (for example, during arguments). After the event has passed, they are very likely to speak of it referring to the words that made them angry or sad, and not a description of the discomfort they created. The explanation supplants memories of the actual event. This also happens with religious experiences. The phenomena are recalled as instances and verifications of the themes in their religious beliefs.
The images associated with the words that we use to label a religious experience, without actively doing anything, strongly affect what we later remember as true. A religious belief, like all beliefs, is a cognitive strategy. Religious beliefs attempt to anticipate both events in the world, and our life experiences (including religious experiences) and organize their meaning. Religious belief is different from a religious experience. A delusion differs from a belief to the extent that it affects the person’s explanations and perceptions of his or her own private world. Religiosity is the degree to which the experience infuses what the person perceives, thinks, and believes about the world and explains the Cosmos. Delusions have implications about the person who has them, while religiosity includes beliefs about the entire universe, including its origins and eschatology. Given that science also offers a cognitive strategy for anticipating events and interpreting their significance, maintaining a religious ideational framework (“belief system”) and its accompanying paradigms cannot be regarded as an epileptic phenomenon.
Dr. Michael A. Persinger
Behavioural Neuroscience, Biomolecular Sciences and Human Studies
Departments of Psychology and Biology
Sudbury, Ontario, Canada P3E 2C6
NOTE: This blog is hosted by a colleague.