Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Is God all in our heads—a product of brain chemistry? Or is the human brain like a radio that can tune into the divine?
This raises the question: Is spiritual experience nothing more than brain activity? Other researchers have found that psychedelic drugs like psilocybin (mushrooms) and LSD trigger mystical experiences worthy of Joan of Arc. Does that mean that God is merely brain chemistry?
Still other researchers believe that the temporal lobe mediates spiritual experience, because it is involved with memory, emotion, sound, smell, and some vision. When someone suffers a temporal lobe seizure, it’s as if the normal emotions have an exclamation point after them, because so many nerve cells are firing in rhythm. People who have “ecstatic seizures” may hear snatches of music, drawn from their memory, and interpret it as music from heavenly spheres. They may see a glimpse of light and think it’s an angel. Orrin Devinsky, who directs the epilepsy center at New York University, said many neurologists suspect some of history’s religious giants suffered from epilepsy. Did Paul hear Jesus on the road to Damascus, or was he experiencing an auditory hallucination? How about Moses and that burning bush? “Assuming, for now, a more rational scientific view, [Moses] was having a visual hallucination and he heard God’s voice,” Devinsky observed. It could have been God; it could have been a seizure. But one thing Devinsky does believe is this: “Whatever happened back there in Sinai, Moses’ experience was mediated by his temporal lobe.”
But does that mean transcendent experiences are only a physiological event? Or, is this how the brain is wired to connect with a dimension of reality that our physical senses cannot perceive — in other words, does the brain activity reflect an encounter with the divine?
I want to propose that how you come down on this issue depends on whether you think of the brain as a CD player or a radio. Most people who believe everything is explainable through material processes believe the brain is like a CD player. The content — the song, for example — is playing in a closed system. If you take a hammer to the machine, then the song won’t play. In other words, there is no song — or God — that exists outside the brain trying to communicate. All spiritual experience resides inside the brain, and when you alter the brain, God and spirituality disappear.
But suppose the brain is not a CD player. Suppose it’s a radio. In this analogy, the sender is separate from the receiver. The content of the transmission does not originate in the brain, any more than the hosts of “All Things Considered” are sitting inside of your radio. If you destroy the radio, you won’t hear the show, but the show is still being transmitted across the airwaves. If the brain is a receiver, then theoretically “God’s” communications never stop — even when the brain is altered, even when it stops functioning well, or at all. In this analogy, everyone possesses the neural equipment to receive the radio program in varying degrees. Some have the volume turned low. Perhaps Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have hit the mute button. Other people hear their favorite programs every now and again, like those who have brief transcendent moments.
It’s entirely possible that Moses and Paul were suffering seizures when they saw that burning bush or heard the voice of Jesus. Then again, perhaps people who enjoy transcendent moments are able to tune into another dimension of reality that many of us ignore. Maybe Moses and Paul were not hallucinating. Maybe they just had better antennae.