Mystical experiences under the microscope
- From the Philadelphia Inquirer
This is an interesting article that maybe
we can say is "from the outside looking in",
whereas Papajeff 's recent post is from the inside
looking out and in. Enjoy!
Brain waves or beatific vision?
Mystical experiences under the microscope
By David O'Reilly
Inquirer Staff Writer
As mystical experiences go, Barbara Bradley
Hagerty's transcendent moment was not the kind
that launches a new world religion. Still, it
changed her forever.
The day was June 10, 1995. Hagerty, religion
reporter for National Public Radio, was
interviewing a terminally ill melanoma patient,
Kathy, whose sunny outlook and trust in Jesus
seemed to have prolonged her life, inexplicably,
Then, as they talked, "I felt the hair on
the back of my neck stand on end," Hagerty
writes in her new book, Fingerprints of God,
a survey of modern scientific investigation
into religious experience.
"The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone
had moved into the circle [of lamplight] and
was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy." She,
too, felt something and had "fallen silent in
"I felt an unseen caress, engulfed by a
presence I could feel but not touch," Hagerty
continues. "I was paralyzed. . . . After a
minute, although it seemed longer, the presence
What was it she sensed? Jesus? An angelic being?
Or, as one researcher later suggested, had the
temporal lobe of her brain been briefly
hyperstimulated? This, he told her, likely
induced the illusion of an unseen presence.
Whatever it was, it proved the "continental
divide in my life," Hagerty said during a
recent interview. "I decided I should
investigate, the way we journalists do."
Her investigation grew into Fingerprints of
God, a lucid overview of an essential question:
Is mystical experience truly a glimpse of the
divine, the eternal, the absolute? Or are
the seemingly transformative moments known
variously as "enlightenment" or "beatific
vision" or cosmic bliss merely swells and
quells in brain activity, signifying nothing
"I knew this had some risks," said Hagerty,
who grew up in a devout Christian Science family
but had parted with the faith as an adult.
She would be poking at the very foundation
of religion: the phenomenon of transcendent
moments, the kind that had transformed Paul,
Muhammad, Moses, Buddha, Indian shamans, Hindu
sages - perhaps even Jesus - and thence whole
"The main thing was, what if God is a sham?"
Hagerty worried. "What if religion is all tissue paper?"
Her "radical project" would take her into
monasteries, a trailer park, research labs,
an Indian peyote ritual (she just watched),
and a Canadian brain stimulation exercise
that sought to replicate her 1995 experience
of an "unseen presence."
The body of scientific research into religious
experience is so diverse that Fingerprints of
God never lingers for long on any one topic.
But it serves as a broad and readable
introduction to the growing field of "neurotheology."
Typical of the many stories in the book is
that of the Rev. Scott McDermott, former
pastor of Washington Crossing United Methodist
Church in Bucks County.
One day in 1996 McDermott - who has a doctorate
in New Testament theology - struck up a
conversation with a Pentecostal preacher from
Toronto. When the man told McDermott he would
pray for him, McDermott suddenly fell on his
back with a vision of the ancient Holy Land,
and saw himself running "from Jericho to Jerusalem."
For 90 minutes McDermott lay on the floor,
pumping his arms and legs until he saw himself
arriving at the Temple. There he found Jesus
waiting for him, he said, "his arms outstretched."
McDermott had been exceptionally prayerful
even as a teenager. Still, the intensity
and suddenness of his vision - which compelled
him to leave Bucks for a pastorate in
Toronto - astonished him. What was it that
he experienced that day?
At Hagerty's request, McDermott submitted
to a brain scan at the Hospital of the University
of Pennsylvania. There, Andrew Newberg, a
radiologist now famous for his studies of the
brain functions associated with spiritual
practices, observed McDermott's brain activity.
Newberg observed which parts of McDermott's
brain "lit up" while he prayed. But what
really surprised him was McDermott's thalamus,
a tiny region in the brain that regulates
the processing of sights and sounds and other data.
Newberg, who has scanned thousands of human
brains, including meditating monks and nuns
both Christian and Buddhist, told Hagerty
that he has found asymmetrical thalami to be
a kind of "spiritual marker," often associated
with "spiritual virtuosos."
Those asymmetries are typically in the range
of 3 to 5 percent. McDermott's thalamus was
15 percent asymmetrical, the most pronounced
Newberg had ever seen.
Hagerty also visits the workings of dopamine,
serotonin, the DRD4 gene, the VMAT2 gene,
identical-twin studies, the frontal lobes of
the brain, epilepsy, theta waves, and gamma
rhythms in religious experience.
Each seems to offer a tantalizing glimpse
into the "truth" of such experiences. But
on the ultimate question - do human brains
simply generate religious sensations, or can
some of us perceive realms of being - Hagerty
says there is no way of being certain.
"You can have two views of it and they're
both valid," Hagerty concluded.
She emerged from her quest with a sense that
"the instruments of brain science are picking
up something beyond this material world."
But she admits that may be, at least in part,
because she is not comfortable with the idea
of an absurd, meaningless universe.
Intellectually, at least, she discounts the
idea of a God who intervenes in human affairs.
"I came to define God by his handiwork," she
writes. "A craftsman who builds the hope of
eternity into our genes, a master electrician
and chemist who outfits our brains to access
another dimension, a guru who rewards our
spiritual efforts by allowing us to feel
united with all things, an intelligence that
pervades every atom and every nanosecond,
all time and space, in the throes of death
or the ecstasy of life."
But emotionally, she finds the idea of an
"infinite mind" not quite comforting enough,
and so maintains a "binary view of God."
"In my everyday life I'm living out a human
story," she said, and so she turns sometimes
to the life of Jesus "as a way to model my life."
"The [concept of God] I can defend intellectually
at a cocktail party is infinite," she said
with a laugh. "But the one that helps me is
'What would Jesus say to me?'
"I feel I can have both."
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