Mystic or Manic?: Religion on the Brain (or Your Brain on Religion)?

Last night I was having a twittersation with someone named Simon Albert, a nonconforming, conservative Ron Paul supporter who refuses to go along with the Romney Republicans, about something entirely unrelated (at least in obvious ways) to politics: the nature of cosmic reality and what human minds can know about it. It’s not easy to have conversations of such weight in so ephemeral a format, but, of course, that rarely stops “tweeple” from trying.

It began when Albert tweeted, “God is real. #jesus #atheism.” Clearly, Albert was trolling for an argument with an atheist and he put a great big juicy worm on his hook. I bit.

It so happens, I had been thinking and reading about people’s experiences of “real” heaven in the previous days. Over the weekend, an e-mail newsletter I subscribe to from British blog aggregator The Browser (from which I get a lot of ideas for my own blog, I should say) shared a couple of links to pieces about the Newsweek cover story on Harvard professor Eben Alexander’s so-called “near death experience” while in a coma.  (Apparently it is one of the last “cover” stories Newsweek will ever actually print.)  Dr. Alexander’s lengthy account (which I confess I haven’t yet had the patience or focus to make it all the way through) will be padded out (oh, joy) in book form in the coming months, joining a less well-credentialed, more down-scale but monstrously best-selling account of four year old Colton Burpo’s certain assertion that Heaven Is For Real.

I confess I haven’t read the Burpo account, nor was I very familiar with what was in it until very recently, though I made a very good guess.  Some books you actually can judge by the cover. Like probably millions of rational secular types, I could only roll my eyes over the insatiable gullibility of America’s fundamentally faithful, ever ready to make rich some enterprising huckster who’ll massage their fantastic beliefs. (“He really did sit on Jesus’s lap, Mabel! Why would a four-year-old make up something like that?)

But now Newsweek has an even more credible witness. (“It’s right there on the cover of a national news magazine, Mabel: Heaven is real!“) Not only is Alexander a Harvard man, he’s a neurosurgeon. He deals in brains, the very organ that enabled him to remember his cosmic journey on butterfly wings to the capital of the afterlife. Now why would a grown brain surgeon make something like that up?

Colin Blakemore, a professor of Neuroscience and Philosophy at the  School of Advanced Study, University of London, suggests in a piece for the Telegraph that Alexander’s memory, rather than being “made up” consciously like a story, could very likely have been produced unconsciously like a dream, and would, in any case, be as susceptible to the effects of wakefulness on its accuracy and meaning:

Dr Peter Fenwick, senior lecturer at King’s College, London, consultant at the Institute of Psychiatry, and president of the British branch of The International Association for Near Death Studies, acknowledges that there are deep problems in interpreting first-person memories of experiences that are supposed to have happened when the brain was out of action. Since the lucky survivor can only tell you about them after the event, how can we be sure that these things were perceived and felt at the time that their brains were messed up, rather than being invented afterwards?

The same problem applies to dreams, indeed to any memory. Memory is notoriously fallible, and is treacherously easily misled by expectation. The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has done brilliant experiments showing how the recall of real experiences can be transformed by what people think should have happened, and by what they are told might have happened.

In 150 years the science of perception has taught us that the way we appreciate the world around us is as much dependent on our expectations, our experiences, our inferences, as it is on the hard evidence of images on our retinas or vibrations in our ears.

Sam Harris, who, in addition to being a famous atheist, has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA, asks some very pertinent questions, to my admittedly neuroscientifically naive mind, about what might really have been going on with Alexander’s brain, physiologically speaking:

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science. Perhaps he has saved a more persuasive account for his book—though now that I’ve listened to an hour-long interview with him online, I very much doubt it. In his Newsweek article, Alexander asserts that the cessation of cortical activity was “clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.” To his editors, this presumably sounded like neuroscience.

The problem, however, is that “CT scans and neurological examinations” can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else. And Alexander makes no reference to functional data that might have been acquired by fMRI, PET, or EEG—nor does he seem to realize that only this sort of evidence could support his case. Obviously, the man’s cortex is functioning now—he has, after all, written a book—so whatever structural damage appeared on CT could not have been “global.” (Otherwise, he would be claiming that his entire cortex was destroyed and then grew back.) Coma is not associated with the complete cessation of cortical activity, in any case. And to my knowledge, almost no one thinks that consciousness is purely a matter of cortical activity. Alexander’s unwarranted assumptions are proliferating rather quickly. Why doesn’t he know these things? He is, after all, a neurosurgeon who survived a coma and now claims to be upending the scientific worldview on the basis of the fact that his cortex was totally quiescent at the precise moment he was enjoying the best day of his life in the company of angels. Even if his entire cortex had truly shut down (again, an incredible claim), how can he know that his visions didn’t occur in the minutes and hours during which its functions returned?

Harris also wonders if Alexander is underestimating the powers of brain chemistry to stimulate visual and sensory regions in the otherwise dormant organ. In particular:

Does Alexander know that DMT [a psychotropic that stimulates ecstatic visions] already exists in the brain as a neurotransmitter? Did his brain experience a surge of DMT release during his coma? This is pure speculation, of course, but it is a far more credible hypothesis than that his cortex “shut down,” freeing his soul to travel to another dimension. As one of his correspondents has already informed him, similar experiences can be had with ketamine, which is a surgical anesthetic that is occasionally used to protect a traumatized brain. Did Alexander by any chance receive ketamine while in the hospital? Would he even think it relevant if he had? His assertion that psychedelics like DMT and ketamine “do not explain the kind of clarity, the rich interactivity, the layer upon layer of understanding” he experienced is perhaps the most amazing thing he has said since he returned from heaven. Such compounds are universally understood to do the job. And most scientists believe that the reliable effects of psychedelics indicate that the brain is at the very least involved in the production of visionary states of the sort Alexander is talking about.

Which brings me back to my twittersation of last night.

“What do you mean by ‘God?'” I asked Simon Albert in response to his tersely provocative tweet. “What do you mean by ‘real?'”

“God as in the Creator, the immortal master builder of existance [sic],” Albert shortly replied. “Real as in alive, an actual being.”

“So God is really a person (like a corporation, presumably)?” I asked. “God is alive, like an animal is alive?”

Fortunately, Albert doesn’t buy the “corporations are people, too” propaganda infecting the Republican party and Supreme Court chambers. But I think he understood that my questions were intended to suss out how concrete a picture he has of this God character. Does he think he’s an old man on a cloud, for instance? A shining light? A vibrating Twinkie? He replied that God is too great for our finite human minds to understand. Well, doesn’t Albert have a finite mind like everyone else?, I wondered. How does he know his finite mind is any better able to comprehend infinite God than any one else’s?

“[W]ell,” he said, “there is a veil, which causes blindness. Once the veil is lifted the evidence is apparent to the finite mind.” He explained that this veil is “a curtain, some call it a ‘skin over the eyes’ blinding people to the glory of the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Albert’s tendency to speak in metaphors, like many a religious person’s, has the unfortunate side effect of making them seem evasive and imprecise to those of us who are not religious. Again, I wondered if he saw this veil/curtain/skin as a physical thing or a super-physical thing–in other words, a specific thing, and not just a poetic way of saying something like “unbelief” or “innocence” or “inexperience.”  As a skeptic, I could understand the argument that knowledge of God is available when the “veil of youth” is poetically thrown off as a person reaches spiritual maturity. I don’t buy it, but I understand it. But I don’t understand a concept of a mystical veil as a part of human design, a part intended to obscure the designer, and any evidence of the designer, from the designed being. To me that sounds like, you should pardon the expression, bullshit. It sounds like something believers concoct to pat themselves on the back for their beliefs: you may not believe, they seem to be arguing, but that’s only because you haven’t had the magic curtain lifted like I have. What magic curtain? The magic curtain that only they and God know about. It’s not very helpful to those of us who don’t believe and have no reason to believe.

I say this though I have had what I, at one time, thought of as mystical experiences à la Albert and Alexander. When I was 20 years old, I had my first and most vivid one. It was in early December 1980. Ronald Reagan, much to my disgust and shock, was freshly elected. More disturbing to me, John Lennon had been freshly assassinated. The world stopped making sense. I was living in my childhood home up in Maine, trying to fall asleep in an unheated attic that had been my older brother’s room. I had just watched Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show, the late-night predecessor to David Letterman’s Late Night on NBC. The guest was Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, and the subject had been (if I remember correctly) why anyone should be hopeful about the future. I don’t at all remember what Toffler said, only that he listed some reasons that were somehow momentarily reassuring.

So there I lay in bed, thinking somewhat hopefully about the future after a month or so of feeling utterly hopeless about it. I had been taking courses at Bates college in Lewiston, one of which was on early Christian thought.  Don’t ask me why I took it; I think I was interested in finding out if anything good lay at the root of the religion whose modern forms I was finding more and more repulsive. In any case, in my room that night, I said to myself that I had been working on my intellectual self. Maybe I should take stock of my spiritual self. My left foot hung out from under my covers in the frigid night air, my arms were folded over my chest on top of the down comforter covering the rest of me. I began to think of “God” and tell it what I thought it was. “You’re not a man,” I thought. “You’re not gendered. You’re not human. You’re not animal…” Everything I was telling it, in fact, was a negative, what I knew it wasn’t. “You’re not a conservative. You’re not a liberal. You’re not this, you’re not that…” With each thought I felt my body start to swing first left, then right, then left, then right, faster and faster, like a pendulum, back and forth, back and forth,  as the catalog continued. “You’re not here, you’re not there…” Left, right, left, right. I felt the strong presence of what Albert might call “the Spirit,” relating directly to me, and I felt my body spinning, spinning, as though it were on top of the world and the whole world was spinning thousands of revolutions a second beneath me. I heard myself think, joyously, “Ommmmmmmm….” And slowly, slowly, the spinning stopped and the swinging sensation resumed, slowing, slowing,  like the pendulum of an unwound clock coming finally to a rest. My ears were humming. My heart was pumping. My face was burning. My left foot, still in the cold air, was hot.

I congratulated myself mightily that night. Wow, I’m a mystic!, I thought. For years, I wondered if I was gifted, but it turned out that that experience was unique. I did not become more interested in religion, oddly enough. I just assumed that if I really were gifted, I would be drawn to use the gift at the appropriate time, whenever the universe required it of me.  Later in my twenties, I experienced a period of about a month in which I believed I was enjoying exceptionally lucid vision, in which I was understanding history and time with bracing clarity, and in which I could not stop myself from spouting aphorisms.  (“Ghosts are a place’s memory,” or something like that.) I also labeled that period a mystical experience. A professor I had at the time whose opinion I valued and who I went to see to tell him about my experience, had a different interpretation which he expressed gently by writing down for me the number of a psychiatrist.

I no longer believe I am mystically gifted. I have come to view those experiences as blips of brain chemistry gone a little haywire. Not manic episodes, but some kind of neurochemical disequilibrium. And this interpretation of mine–which I’m glad I’ve come to because I am interested in what is really happening out there, outside my head and don’t want nonsense to mislead about truths that matter–this interpretation of mine makes me doubt mysticism of all kinds. I don’t begrudge anyone their own experiences. I know how pleasurable ecstasy is. I just don’t accept ecstasy as a valid substitute for truth.

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2 thoughts on “Mystic or Manic?: Religion on the Brain (or Your Brain on Religion)?

  1. Pingback: Poof of Heaven: Eben Alexander’s Truth Problem | Tragic Farce

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