God on the Brain (2003)
God on the Brain
Rudi Affolter and Gwen Tighe have both experienced strong religious visions. He is an atheist; she a Christian. He thought he had died; she thought she had given birth to Jesus. Both have temporal lobe epilepsy.
Like other forms of epilepsy, the condition causes fitting but it is also associated with religious hallucinations. Research into why people like Rudi and Gwen saw what they did has opened up a whole field of brain science: neurotheology.
The connection between the temporal lobes of the brain and religious feeling has led one Canadian scientist to try stimulating them. (They are near your ears.) 80% of Dr Michael Persinger's experimental subjects report that an artificial magnetic field focused on those brain areas gives them a feeling of 'not being alone'. Some of them describe it as a religious sensation.
"...a high probability [Ellen White] had temporal lobe epilepsy"
Prof Gregory Holmes, Dartmouth Medical School
His work raises the prospect that we are programmed to believe in god, that faith is a mental ability humans have developed or been given. And temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) could help unlock the mystery.
History is full of charismatic religious figures. Could any of them have been epileptics? The visions seen by Bible characters like Moses or Saint Paul are consistent with Rudi's and Gwen's, but there is no way to diagnose TLE in people who lived so long ago.
There are, though, more recent examples, like one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Movement, Ellen White. Born in 1827, she suffered a brain injury aged 9 that totally changed her personality. She also began to have powerful religious visions.
Representatives of the Movement doubt that Ellen White suffered from TLE, saying her injury and visions are inconsistent with the condition, but neurologist Gregory Holmes believes this explains her condition.
"These patients are more prone to religious belief"
Prof Vilayanur Ramachandran, University of California, San Diego
Better than sex
The first clinical evidence to link the temporal lobes with religious sensations came from monitoring how TLE patients responded to sets of words. In an experiment where people were shown either neutral words (table), erotic words (sex) or religious words (god), the control group was most excited by the sexually loaded words. This was picked up as a sweat response on the skin. People with temporal lobe epilepsy did not share this apparent sense of priorities. For them, religious words generated the greatest reaction. Sexual words were less exciting than neutral ones.
If the abnormal brain activity of TLE patients alters their response to religious concepts, could altering brain patterns artificially do the same for people with no such medical condition? This is the question that Michael Persinger set out to explore, using a wired-up helmet designed to concentrate magnetic fields on the temporal lobes of the wearer.
"Feeling something beyond yourself, bigger in space and time, can be stimulated"
Dr Michael Persinger, Laurentian University
His subjects were not told the precise purpose of the test; just that the experiment looked into relaxation. 80% of participants reported feeling something when the magnetic fields were applied. Persinger calls one of the common sensations a 'sensed presence', as if someone else is in the room with you, when there is none.
Horizon introduced Dr Persinger to one of Britain's most renowned atheists, Prof Richard Dawkins. He agreed to try his techniques on Dawkins to see if he could give him a moment of religious feeling. During a session that lasted 40 minutes, Dawkins found that the magnetic fields around his temporal lobes affected his breathing and his limbs. He did not find god.
"A talent for religion... some people have and other people don't"
Bishop Stephen Sykes, University of Durham
Persinger was not disheartened by Dawkins' immunity to the helmet's magnetic powers. He believes that the sensitivity of our temporal lobes to magnetism varies from person to person. People with TLE may be especially sensitive to magnetic fields; Prof Dawkins is well below average, it seems. It's a concept that clerics like Bishop Stephen Sykes give some credence as well: could there be such a thing as a talent for religion?
Sykes does, though, see a great difference between a 'sensed presence' and a genuine religious experience. Scientists like Andrew Newberg want to see just what does happen during moments of faith. He worked with Buddhist, Michael Baime, to study the brain during meditation. By injecting radioactive tracers into Michael's bloodstream as he reached the height of a meditative trance, Newberg could use a brain scanner to image the brain at a religious climax.
"People meditating describe a loss of sense of self"
Dr Andrew Newberg, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
The bloodflow patterns showed that the temporal lobes were certainly involved but also that the brain's parietal lobes appeared almost completely to shut down. The parietal lobes give us our sense of time and place. Without them, we may lose our sense of self. Adherants to many of the world's faiths regard a sense of personal insignificance and oneness with a deity as something to strive for. Newberg's work suggests a neurological basis for what religion tries to generate.
If brain function offers insight into how we experience religion, does it say anything about why we do? There is evidence that people with religious faith have longer, healthier lives. This hints at a survival benefit for religious people. Could we have evolved religious belief?
Prof Dawkins (who subscribes to evolution to explain human development) thinks there could be an evolutionary advantage, not to believing in god, but to having a brain with the capacity to believe in god. That such faith exists is a by-product of enhanced intelligence. Prof Ramachandran denies that finding out how the brain reacts to religion negates the value of belief. He feels that brain circuitry like that Persinger and Newberg have identified, could amount to an antenna to make us receptive to god. Bishop Sykes meanwhile, thinks religion has nothing to fear from this neuroscience. Science is about seeking to explain the world around us. For him at least, it can co-exist with faith.
God on the Brain - questions and answers
What are the temporal lobes of the brain?
The temporal lobe controls hearing, speech and memory. The brain has two temporal lobes, one on each side of the brain, located near the ears. The two are interchangeable so if one is damaged the other is usually able to take over the other's function.
What is temporal lobe epilepsy?
It is a condition in which the patient suffers repeated seizures when there is abnormal electrical activity in the temporal lobes of the brain. These seizures may be simple partial seizures without loss of awareness or they can be complex partial seizures with loss of awareness. The patient loses awareness during a complex partial seizure because the seizure spreads to both lobes, causing memory loss. The condition was first recognised in 1881.
What percentage of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy suffer from religious hallucinations?
It is difficult to say because unless the doctor brings up the subject directly with the patient, they may never know if the patient has religious hallucinations. Estimates vary between 10 and 70% , but most neurologists believe only a minority of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy suffer from hallucinations.
Are scientists arguing that all religious experiences can be related to temporal lobe epilepsy?
Not at all. While studies have clearly shown a relationship between religious experience and temporal lobe epilepsy. This does not explain all religious experience by any means. Religious and spiritual experiences are highly complex, involving emotions, thoughts, sensations and behaviours. But scientists do believe that patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, who experience religious hallucinations may provide a valuable model in showing how certain types of religious experience effect the human brain.
Does this work suggest there is a specific 'god spot' in the brain?
Although the temporal lobes are clearly important in religious experience, they are not the whole story. Already the work of Dr Andrew Newberg has shown that a part of the brain called parietal lobes are important. Additionally, very different patterns of brain activity may appear, depending on the particular experience the individual is having. For example, a near death experience might result in different activity patterns from those found in a person who is meditating. Scientists now believe that a number of structures in the brain need to work together to help us experience spirituality and religion.
Are we 'hardwired' for god?
The term 'hardwired' suggests that we were purposefully designed that way. Neuroscience can't answer that question. However what it can say is that the brain does seem to predisposed towards a belief in spiritual and religious matters. The big mystery is how and why this came about.
How does Dr Persinger induce artificially religious experiences in his patients?
Dr Persinger has designed a helmet that produces a very weak rotating magnetic field of between ten nanotesla and one microtesla over the temporal lobes of the brain. This is placed on the subject's head and they are placed in a quiet chamber while blindfolded. So that there is no risk of 'suggestion', the only information that the subjects are given is that they are going in for a relaxation experiment. Neither the subject nor the experimenter carrying out the test has any idea of the true purpose of the experiment. In addition to this, the experiment is also run with the field switched both off and on. This procedure Dr Persinger claims will induce an experience in over 80% of test subjects.
What sort of experiences do subjects report?
This is very dependent on the belief system of the individual subjects. Dr Persinger talks about his subjects feeling a 'sensed presence' - feeling that somebody was in the chamber with them. Subjects who are strongly religious are likely to interpret this presence as god. Whereas, atheists may also report a 'sensed presence' but attribute the phenomena to a trick of brain chemistry, perhaps comparable to when they have taken drugs in the past.
Could it be there is a genetic component to religious belief?
Religious behaviour is so complex it is very unlikely that there will be a single gene for religious activity, but it does seem as if there is some sort of as yet unidentified genetic component. Several studies of identical twins separated at birth and brought up separately have measured religiosity. Religiosity is defined as the intensity of religious belief. These studies have shown that there appears to be about a 50% component to religiosity.
Clearly, what religion you are brought up in is largely dependent upon the culture into which you are born, but what appears to have a significant genetic component is your level of religious intensity.
Will any of this research ever be able to establish whether god exists or not?
Whether god exists or not is something that neuroscience cannot answer. For example, if we take a brain image of a person when they are looking at a picture, we will see various parts of the brain being activated, such as the visual cortex. But the brain image cannot tell us whether or not there is actually a picture 'out there' or whether the person is creating the picture in their own mind. To a certain degree, we all create our own sense of reality. Getting to what is real is the tricky part.
God on the Brain - transcript
RUDI: I thought that I had died and I had gone to hell.
GWEN: I was almost thinking of my son as god.
BERNY: It then turned out she thought I was Joseph, she was Mary and little Charlie was Christ.
NARRATOR (BARBARA FLYNN): These people suffer from one of the strangest of all brain disorders. It makes them think they have been touched by god. But their unusual condition is giving scientists a unique insight into faith and the human mind. As a result researchers are now asking one of them most explosive questions of all - could it be that the physical makeup of our brain programmes us to believe in god?
RUDI: These are my temporal lobes where my epilepsy is situated.
NARRATOR: Rudi Affolter has suffered from a severe form of temporal lobe epilepsy all his life, so severe that he almost died from his seizures when he was just 18 months old. Seizures occur when there is abnormal electrical activity in t he temporal lobes of the brain.
RUDI AFFOLTER: For a few minutes you will be unaware and you're then quite often a bit giddy. It goes on until you collapse to the ground and you're writhing about for perhaps for a few minutes. You might remain conscious or you might then be completely unconscious.
NARRATOR: Temporal lobe epilepsy has one very unusual side effect. In a minority of patients it can induce religious hallucinations. These visions have led scientists to ask questions that have never been asked before. Rudi has always been a confirmed atheist, but even so, when he was 43 years old he had a powerful religious vision.
RUDI: I was lying on my bed in the wards in Crawley Hospital when suddenly it seemed to me that everything was changing. The room was still the same size but it was becoming something else. I thought that I had to fight against this at first and I tried very hard mentally to bring myself back to normal because I thought that I was going mad. I thought that I had died and I had gone to hell. I was told that I had gone there because I had not been a devout Christian, a believer in god. I was quite shocked to find that the Christian religion was the correct one. I was very depressed and very alarmed, very worried at what had happened, and at the thought that I was going to remain here forever.
NARRATOR: Fortunately for Rudi, his vision ended and he has never had another one. He remains a firm atheist. But Gwen Tighe has suffered from hallucinations which have recurred over a number of years. Unlike Rudi, she is a strong believer, a devout Roman Catholic. Over the years her husband, Berny, has been there to witness the effect of these visions, the first of which appeared just after their honeymoon when Gwen was in hospital.
BERNY TIGHE: And she wanted to whisper to me that the lady across the ward was the devil, and that's the first I've ever heard of it. She was.. the lady she was green skinned apparently, a green colour - the devil!
GWEN TIGHE: It just was in my mind the devil and it looked frightening. It was brighter lights, not the dark lights like people would usually associate with devil-like creatures. It was very bright but overpowering and very frightening.
BERNY: Crikey! (laughs) What do I... what's going on? After that she had occasions when she'd have a number of seizures or her medication would go slightly wrong and she would be confused then, and then she'd start talking about the devil.
NARRATOR: After several years the visions stopped completely but then Gwen became pregnant.
BERNY: Gwen had a lovely pregnancy, nothing seemed to be going wrong.
GWEN: We went to the car and just as we got in the car my waters broke then, and after that I can't remember anything.
BERNY: Got to the actual birth and Charles - that's our son - got about half way out and his head was coming out, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and he was strangling a bit. She was too late to have a caesarean but they were able to get Charles out eventually, no damage to him. She was just sitting there smiling I think would be the best description. And I was sitting there and she turned around and said: "Isn't it nice to be part of the Holy Family." I thought - Holy Family? It then turned out she thought I was Joseph, she was Mary and little Charlie was Christ! And I was basically told if she didn't agree to go into the local psychiatric hospital they'd section her. At the time it was extremely scary. I didn't know where I was going. I've got to be honest.
GWEN: Now looking back on it, it is rather a strange, to say the least, thing to have happen... been in my thoughts at the time. I don't know why I said it.
NARRATOR: Rudi and Gwen's hallucinations may seem very odd, but there is a growing belief amongst researchers that their condition could help give answers to one of the deepest philosophical questions of all. Where does religious belief come from? Divine revelation is crucial to all the great faiths. Visions for mystics and seers have produced creeds that people have lived and died for. Believers are convinced that such revelations come from god; atheists that they are no more than the product of superstition and social conditioning. What neither side has ever thought is that religion might actually be as fundamentally a part of us as the desire to eat, sleep or have sex. But now that view may be changing, and temporal lobe epilepsy is turning out to be key. The condition is being used to help explain the start of at least one of the world's most thriving religious groups - the Seventh Day Adventist Movement which currently has over 12 million members. Locked within the archives of the church lies the story of how it all began, with the revelations of a young woman called Ellen White.
MERLIN BURT (Ellen G. White, Estate Branch Office, Loma Linda): Ellen White is one of the principal founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. She had unique visionary experiences that gave guidance to the movement in what they understood to be a supernatural way. The religious visions remain critically important to the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
NARRATOR: Ellen White was born in 1827 and during her life wrote about 100,000 pages about her religious faith, believing she was inspired by god she laid out a strict moral code which lectured on everything from the sins of tea drinking to masturbation. She also gave detailed accounts of hundreds of intense religious visions that she'd experienced.
ELLEN WHITE: While I was praying there was - as has been a hundred times or more - a soft light circling around in the room, and a fragrance like the fragrance of flowers, and I knew god was close.
NARRATOR: These visions so convinced her followers that they believed she had to be a prophet from god. But when scientists began to study Ellen's past, they started to wonder if instead she had been a sufferer of temporal lobe epilepsy. Because one day, something happened that might have induced the condition. When she was 9 years old Ellen was chased home from school by an older girl.
ELLEN: I turned to see how far she was behind me, and as I turned a stone hit me on the nose. A blinding, stunning sensation overpowered me and I fell senseless. My mother says that I noticed nothing but lay in a stupid state for three weeks. As I roused to consciousness it seemed to me I had been asleep. I was shocked. Every feature of my face seemed changed.
NARRATOR: Ellen was so severely affected by the injury she was never able to return to school. Her personality changed dramatically. She became highly religious and moralistic. And for the first time in her life she began to have powerful religious visions.
PROF GREGORY HOLMES (Dartmouth Medical School): Typically the visions began suddenly, she would have a change in facial expression, she would often stare upward. During her vision she was really unaware of what was happening around her, and often she would have what are called automatisms of repetitive movements from which the patient has very little memory for after the event.
NARRATOR: Professor Gregory Holmes, one of the world's leading experts in paediatric neurology believes the fact that Ellen White's visions followed the head injury is no coincidence.
HOLMES: The bones behind the eyes are quite weak and brain tissue behind the eyes is quite susceptible to an injury due to the fragile nature of these bones. Often someone that's hit in the face with a stone will have an actual shifting of the brain, you know.. the head will be hit very hard, it'll bounce back, and the brain is bouncing back and forth.
NARRATOR: The personality changes, the highly religious tone, and the visions convinced Holmes there could be only one diagnosis for Ellen White's condition.
HOLMES: Her whole clinical course to me suggests a highly probability that she had temporal lobe epilepsy. This would indicate to me that the spiritual vision she was having would not be genuine, would be due to the seizure.
NARRATOR: This is a shattering diagnosis for the Seventh Day Adventist Movement who still insist that Ellen White was divinely inspired. Their spokesman, a neurologist as well as a Seventh Day Adventist dismisses Professor Holmes' claim.
DR DANIEL GIANG (Loma Linda University Medical Center): The reasons why I don't feel that Ellen White's visions were the result of temporal lobe seizures are several. One is that her injury was clearly to the nose area and this would be quite far away from the temporal lobes, another would be that the visions started 8 years after the head trauma and we'd expect most people with seizures following head trauma to have their seizures start 1 to 3 years after the head trauma. Finally, in Ellen White's visions last from 15 minutes to 3 hours or more. She never apparently had any briefer visions. That's quite unusual for seizures.
NARRATOR: It is impossible to prove absolutely that Ellen White had temporal lobe epilepsy, but the length of her visions and the fact that they started 8 years after the accident are consistent with the disorder. Controversially, it is now being suggested that other religious leaders too may have suffered from this condition.
PROF VILAYANUR RAMACHANDRAN (University of California, San Diego): It's possible that many great religious leaders had temporal lobe seizures and this predisposes them to having visions, having mystical experiences.
NARRATOR: St Paul is a case in point. He famously encountered god who appeared to him in a blinding flash on the road to Damascus.
RAMACHANDRAN: Many religious mystics, including St Paul, some of the experiences they describe sound quite similar to the sorts of things you hear from patients, so it's quite possible that he had seizures.
NARRATOR: And what about Moses, the bringer of the Ten Commandments, believed he heard the voice of god speak to him from a burning bush.
RAMACHANDRAN: It's possible that even Moses did, and many religious mystics in India may have had seizure activity in the brain that predisposed them to such beliefs and enriched their mental lives enormously as a result.
NARRATOR: Bishop Stephen Sykes believes that thousands of years on its almost impossible to know for sure whether past religious figures had temporal lobe epilepsy.
BISHOP STEPHEN SYKES (University of Durham) : The description of their states of mind is by people of their times, and their frames of ref are very different from ours, and I like to be gently sceptical, I mean it's very easy to say in the past they thought that these people were having religious experience, now in our infinite wisdom we know that in fact they were suffering from a form of epilepsy. Well I just think a bit of humility wouldn't go amiss actually.
NARRATOR: We may never learn the truth about Moses or St Paul, but Professor Ramachandran of the University of California decided to pursue the link between the temporal lobes of the brain and religious experience. So he set up an experiment to compare the brains of people with and without temporal lobe epilepsy.
RAMACHANDRAN: What we did was first take normal volunteers who did not have epileptic seizures. Put two electrodes on their finger tips to measure the changes of skin resistance. This essentially measure how much they sweat when they look at different words on the screen. In a normal person, if I flashed the word 'table' the person will not sweat. But if I flash the word 'sex' then the person starts sweating and this registers as a change of resistance called the 'galvanic skin response'. Now the question is, what would happen if you do the same experiment with patients with temporal lobe epilepsy?
NARRATOR: The epileptic patients were given three different groups of words: sexually loaded words, neutral words and religious words. Professor Ramachandran found that the neutral words, as expected, produced little emotional effect, but was astonished by the response he got when he started showing patients sexual and religious words.
RAMACHANDRAN: What we found to our amazement was, every time they looked at religious words like 'god' they get a huge big galvanic skin response. Conversely, if you showed them a sexually loaded word, these patients showed a slightly lower response. In other words, their response was higher to words about god and religion and lower to sexual words, whereas in most normal people it's the other way around.
NARRATOR: This was the very first piece of clinical evidence revealing that the body's physical response to religious imagery was definitely linked to activity in the temporal lobes of the brain.
RAMACHANDRAN: So what we suggested was, there are certain circuits within the temporal lobes which have been selectively activated. Their activity is selectively heightened in these patients, and somehow the activity of these specific neural circuits is more conducive to religious belief and mystical belief. It makes them more prone to religious belief.
NARRATOR: Scientists now believe what happens inside the minds of temporal lobe epileptic patients may just be an extreme case of what goes on inside all our brains, for everyone. It now appears that temporal lobes are key in experiencing religious and spiritual belief. This explosive research studying how religious faith affects the brain is the inspiration for a completely new field of science - neurotheology. In a remote region of Northern Canada a scientist put this controversial new science of neurotheology to the test. Dr Michael Persinger claims that by stimulating the temporal lobes he can artificially induce religious experience in almost anyone. Dr Persinger has developed a device which produces an electromagnetic field across the temporal lobes. He says he can induce a moment that feels just like a genuine religious revelation with a machine unlike any other.
DR MICHAEL PERSINGER (Laurentian University): The helmet was basically designed t generate weak magnetic fields across the hemispheres, specifically the temporal lobe. So the way it's set up is that each pair of the solenoids are connected so that at any given time a magnetic field passes through the helmet and hence through the brain.
NARRATOR: Before the experiment could go ahead, Dr Persinger took his subjects into a silent room where they were blindfolded. Don Hill had little idea of what he was about to go through as he entered the testing chamber.
DON HILL: In the chamber I had a number of experiences: my hands getting very clammy, waves of fear inexplicable that I couldn't put my finger on, tingling effects, rushes of energy up and down my spine, burping (laughs) which is kind of embarrassing, and a general feeling of malaise.
NARRATOR: But as Dr Persinger manipulated the magnetic fields, Don began to get a very strange feeling, a feeling that perhaps he was not alone.
HILL: My shoulders are very tense up to my ears right now.
It's not so much I felt like there was somebody or something in the chamber with me because my commonsense to me that this could not be. But I could not get rid of the feeling that there was something there. It was lurking, it was watching me. I felt like I was under surveillance. And it was.. felt like coming from behind.. you know.. like what's over there. That's what it felt like. Yeah, how could this be? There's nothing there. I'm in a space that's safe. NARRATOR: Don had experienced one of the most common and bizarre effects in the chamber, a feeling that someone else was in there with him. Dr Persinger called this feeling the "sensed presence".
PERSINGER: The fundamental experience is the sensed presence, and our data indicate that the sensed presence, the feeling of another entity of something beyond yourself, perhaps bigger than yourself, bigger in space and bigger in time, can be stimulated by simply activating the right hemisphere, particularly the temple lobe.
NARRATOR: To ensure that it was genuinely the electromagnetic field that caused the sensed presence, Dr Persinger ran the experiment with the field switched both off and on. Crucially no one was told what the true purpose of the experiment was, merely that it was to do with relaxation. When the results came back, they were impressive. When the machine was on, 80% sensed something. Dr Persinger has taken his research a stage further. He believes naturally occurring electromagnetic fields might also be capable of generating the sensed presence. This, he argues, could explain not just our sense of god, but perhaps other supernatural experiences too - like ghosts.
PERSINGER: We were called by an individual who was concerned about her daughter who was having an experience and people were concerned that she was crazy.
NARRATOR: The girl was having terrible trouble sleeping. Every night she was visited by the most horrific supernatural experience. She would become more and more terrified, convinced that a spirit was in the room with her. Increasingly traumatised, she dreaded going into her bedroom. So Dr Persinger decided to visit the house. He was convinced that the girl's hallucinations had to be the result of hidden, fluctuating, electromagnetic fields. These could be caused, perhaps, by an overhead pylon or an underground fault line. The challenge for Dr Persinger and his colleague, Stan Koren, was to track down the source of these fields. The team used their specially adapted measuring equipment - a plastic milk crate and a roll of copper wire.
PERSINGER: What's your beat frequency for the gigahertz - 15?
KOREN: 15 kilohertz - that's right.
PERSINGER: In certain situations electromagnetic fields are being generated that overlap at what the brain normally generates. Certain individuals, if their brains are sensitive, their brains can interact with these fields to produce all kinds of powerful, very meaningful, experiences that can be called a god, or a haunt, depending upon their interpretation.
Talk about quietude!
So we walk about the house trying to find out where the areas are that may be the sources of the signals. Usually the people tell us on the basis of their experience, they'll say: "This is where it happens."
NARRATOR: Initially the readers the team found were inconclusive, but then they noticed a clock radio in the girl's bedroom.
PERSINGER: We went over and measured and we found that she slept near a clock, and we measured the clock, and the clock had a particular, unusual pattern to it. It was the same basic pattern that we were using to generate the presence in the laboratory. The clock was removed, the phenomena itself terminated.
NARRATOR: Dr Persinger's story sounds almost unbelievable, but there is some evidence that backs up the idea of a connection between supernatural visions and electromagnetic fields. The spectacular Northern Lights are produced when solar storms occur on the sun. These storms can also alter the earth's magnetic fields, and whenever this happens, an increased number of ghostly sightings are reported. And several other scientists have claimed that these fluctuating fields can cause seizures in the brain.
PERSINGER: We know geomagnetic activity influences the temple lobes because when we look at correlational data there's an increase in seizures, temporal lobe seizures and convulsions when there's an increased global geomagnetic activity all over the earth.
NARRATOR: Controversially Dr Persinger argues that most, if not all, spiritual and religious experience can be explained away by the effect of electromagnetic fields on the temporal lobes of the brain.
PERSINGER: Most of my colleagues tell me why do you study this because you'll never get grant money, why do you study this because your reputation will be put on the line because you're looking at things that should not be studied, religious experience, paranormal experiences, they should never be studied because they're outside of science. And my question is: why not, why shouldn't we study them? The experimental method is the most powerful tool that we have, that's how we find truth and non-truth.
NARRATOR: So Horizon decided to set Dr Persinger's theories and his machine the ultimate test, to give a religious experience to one of the world's most strident atheists - Professor Richard Dawkins. In Professor Dawkins' opinion the struggle of atheism against religion is nothing less than the battle of truth against ignorance. Will Dr Persinger succeed where the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dalai Lama have failed?
PROF RICHARD DAWKINS (University of Oxford): If I were turned into a devout religious believer, my wife would threaten to leave me. I've always been curious to know what it would be like to have a mystical experience. I'm looking forward to the attempt this afternoon.
NARRATOR: Dr Persinger planned to apply a range of different magnetic fields across Richard Dawkins' brain.
DAWKINS: I've so far experienced nothing unusual at all.
NARRATOR: The fields must be adjusted because Dr Persinger's work suggests that different shapes of field and whether they're applied over the left or right temporal lobe can make a difference to whether the subject experiences god or not.
DAWKINS: I'm slightly dizzy.
NARRATOR: Initially Dr Persinger applied a field to the right-hand side of Richard Dawkins' head.
DAWKINS: Quite strange.
NARRATOR: Then to increase the chances of feeling a sensed presence, Dr Persinger started to apply the magnetic field to both sides of the head.
DAWKINS: Sort of a twitchiness in my breathing. I don't know what that is. My left leg is sort of moving, right leg is twitching.
NARRATOR: So after 40 minutes had Richard Dawkins been brought closer to god?
DAWKINS: Unfortunately I didn't get the sensation of a presence. It pretty much felt as though I was in total darkness with a helmet on my head and pleasantly relaxed, and occasionally feeling the sensations which I described as they occurred into the microphone. But I would be hard put to it to swear that those were not things that could happen to me any time on a dark night. I'm very disappointed. It would have been deeply interesting to me to have experienced something of what religious people do experience in the way of a mystical experience, a communion with the universe. I would have liked to have experienced that.
NARRATOR: But Dr Persinger believes that there was a particular reason why the experiment failed for Richard Dawkins.
PERSINGER: We developed a questionnaire a few years ago called temporal lobe sensitivity and what we found is a continuum of sensitivities from people who are not temporal lobe sensitive to those who are very sensitive, and the experience end being the temporal lobe epileptic. In the case of Dr Dawkins his temporal lobe sensitivity is much, much lower than most people we run than the average person, much, much lower.
BISHOP STEPHEN SYKES (University of Durham): It may not be open to everybody in the same degree to have particular kinds of religious experience. There is a very interesting dispute at the moment about whether one can have a talent for religion and whether that is something like a musical talent which some people have and other people don't have.
NARRATOR: Despite the setback with Professor Dawkins, Dr Persinger's research on over 1000 human guinea pigs has gone further than any other to establish a clear link between spiritual or religious experience and the temporal lobes of the human brain. It has put his research at the very cutting edge of neurotheology. But religious believers argue that there is a world of difference between a motorcycle helmet that induces feelings and a genuine religious experience.
BISHOP SYKES: If I thought that my mind had been manipulated into having a certain set of experiences, and that somebody was out there doing it to me, then I would be very inclined, I think rationally, to think that although the experience might be pleasurable, have good consequences, relaxing, whatever, whatever, I would want to say I wouldn't think it had much to do with religion, with my faith.
NARRATOR: What is almost certainly true is that religious experience is far more complex than can be explained simply by activity in one area of the brain. Dr Persinger's work is only the beginning. Many scientists now suspect there must be far more to the relationship between the brain and belief. A research team has come up with a unique way of exploring this relationship. They examined what happened at the precise moment the brain had a genuine religious experience. It was the mind of Michael Baime that provided the moment of insight.
DR MICHAEL BAIME: You could describe this experience of meditation, of really deep meditation, as a kind of a oneness.
NARRATOR: Michael is a Buddhist, a faith that requires its followers to enter into the spiritual through medication.
BAIME: As you relax more and more and let go of the boundary between oneself and everything else begins to dissolve, so there's more and more of a feeling of identity with the rest of the world and less and less separateness.
NARRATOR: Researcher Dr Andrew Newberg set up a brain imaging system that could for the very first time track exactly what happened inside Michael's brain as he meditated.
DR ANDREW NEWBERG (Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania): When the subject first comes into our laboratory, what we normally do is bring them into a fairly quiet room. They would then begin the mediation. We were normally not even in the room so that we would actually minimise any kind of distractions to them. The only way that we had some kind of contact with them is that they had a little piece of string that would sit next to their side. They would tug on this string a little bit which meant that now they were beginning to head towards their peak of meditation.
NARRATOR: The pulling of the string was the cue for the team to inject a radioactive tracer into Michael's body. This tracer was then carried in the bloodstream up to the brain producing an accurate freeze-frame picture of the blood flow in Michael's brain just moments after injection at the highpoint of his meditative climax. The scans measured blood flow with red showing the areas with highest flow and yellow the areas with lowest. The results revealed that as in other experiments the temporal lobes were certainly involved, but they showed something else. As Michael's meditation reached its peak an area of the brain called the parietal lobes had less and less blood flowing into them. They seemed almost to be shutting down. This was significant new information. The parietal lobes help give us our sense of time and place.
NEWBERG: This part of the brain typically takes all of our sensory information and uses that sensory information to create a sense of ourselves. When people meditate they frequently describe a loss of that sense of self and that's exactly what we did see in the meditation subjects was that they actually decreased the activity in this parietal or this orientation part of the brain.
NARRATOR: This strange sensation of a loss of self is central to religious feelings in all the world's faiths. Buddhists seek a feeling of oneness with the universe, Hindus strive for the soul and God to become one and the Catholics search for the Unio Mystica. Dr Newberg wondered if these very different religions might actually be describing the same thing. To test this theory he took scans of Franciscan nuns at prayer to see if there was any similarity between what was going on in their brains and those of Buddhists.
NEWBERG: Interestingly when we look at the Franciscan nuns we see a similar decrease in the orientation part of the brain as we saw with the Tibetan Buddhists.
NARRATOR: Even though Buddhists and Catholics may come from very different religious traditions, how their minds react to deep meditation or prayer seems, in terms of brain chemistry, to be exactly the same process. Dr Newberg's research shows the first clear scientific evidence that there are a number of different areas in our brain involved in religious belief.
NEWBERG: The results from our study really point to the fact that there is a large network of different structures in the brain communicating with each other during these spiritual experiences, and I think our results do show that there are lots of different parts of the brain that get turned on or turned off suggesting that there really is an overall network of structures that seems to be involved in these types of practices.
NARRATOR: The implications of Dr Newberg's research, along with that of Dr Persinger, are huge. They suggest that how or what we believe is deeply controlled by the basic physical makeup of our minds. It begs the question: why have we developed this ability? Perhaps there is a simple evolutionary explanation. Studies have shown that believers live longer, are healthier, even that they may have lower levels of cancer and heart disease. Could it be we somehow evolved religious belief as a survival mechanism?
DAWKINS: If you ask the question 'what's the survival value of religious belief?' it could be that you're asking the wrong question. What you should be doing is asking what's the survival value of the kind of brain which manifests itself as religious belief under the right circumstances.
NARRATOR: But if religious faith is somehow a by-product of evolution, does that mean belief in a god can be dismissed as a quirk of nature? The fact is, it is much too early to think of neurotheology as a means of explaining away people's faith. Although there is evidence to show that our brains are hardwired for religions, this doesn't mean that god can be dismissed as just a trick of brain chemistry.
RAMACHANDRAN: Just because there are circuits in your brain that predispose you to religious belief does not in any way negate the value of a religious belief. Now it may be god's way of putting an antenna in your brain to make you more receptive to god. Nothing our scientists are saying about the brain or about neural circuitry for religion in any way negates the existence of god, nor negates the value of religious experience for the person experiencing it.
BISHOP SYKES: It would be very surprising if we didn't discover more about the physics and chemistry of those parts of our bodies which are a process, the various bits of enjoyment we receive from religious belief. I think Christians and maybe other religious believers have absolutely nothing to fear from further investigation, indeed should be keen on it and canny when it comes to the interpretation of it.
NARRATOR: What is beyond doubt is that the origins of religion are even more complex than had been thought. The science of neurotheology has revealed that it is too simplistic to see religion as either spiritually inspired or the result of social conditioning. What it shows is that for some reason our brains have developed specific structures that help us believe in god. Remarkably it seems whether god exists or not, the way our brains have developed, we will go on believing.
DAWKINS: The human religious impulse does seem very difficult to wipe out, which causes me a certain amount of grief. Clearly religion has extreme tenacity.
NEWBERG: Because the brain seems to be designed the way it is, and because religion and spirituality seem to be built so well into that kind of function, the concepts of god and religion are going to be around for a very, very long time.
God on the Brain
By Liz Tucker
Why do people experience religious visions? BBC Two's Horizon suggests that in some cases the cause may be a strange brain disorder.
Gwen Tighe thought her child was Jesus
Controversial new research suggests that whether we believe in a God may not just be a matter of free will. Scientists now believe there may be physical differences in the brains of ardent believers.
Inspiration for this work has come from a group of patients who have a brain disorder called temporal lobe epilepsy. In a minority of patients, this condition induces bizarre religious hallucinations - something that patient Rudi Affolter has experienced vividly.
Despite the fact that he is a confirmed atheist, when he was 43, Rudi had a powerful religious vision which convinced him he had gone to hell.
"I was told that I had gone there because I had not been a devout Christian, a believer in God. I was very depressed at the thought that I was going to remain there forever."
Gwen Tighe also has the disorder. When she had a baby, she believed she had given birth to Jesus. It was something her husband Berny found very difficult to understand.
"She said, isn't it nice to be part of the holy family? I thought, holy family? It then turned out she thought I was Joseph, she was Mary and that little Charlie was Christ."
Professor VS Ramachandran, of the University of California in San Diego, believed that the temporal lobes of the brain were key in religious experience. He felt that patients like Rudi and Gwen could provide important evidence linking the temporal lobes to religious experience.
So he set up an experiment to compare the brains of people with and without temporal lobe epilepsy. He decided to measure his patients' changes in skin resistance, essentially measuring how much they sweated when they looked at different types of imagery.
What Professor Ramachandran discovered to his surprise was that when the temporal lobe patients were shown any type of religious imagery, their bodies produced a dramatic change in their skin resistance.
The activity of specific neural circuits makes these patients more prone to religious belief
Prof VS Ramachandran, University of California
"We found to our amazement that every time they looked at religious words like God, they'd get a huge galvanic skin response."
This was the very first piece of clinical evidence revealing that the body's response to religious symbols was definitely linked to the temporal lobes of the brain.
"What we suggested was that there are certain circuits within the temporal lobes which have been selectively activated in these patients and somehow the activity of these specific neural circuits makes them more prone to religious belief."
Scientists now believe famous religious figures in the past could also have been sufferers from the condition. St Paul and Moses appear to be two of the most likely candidates.
But most convincing of all is the evidence from American neurologist Professor Gregory Holmes. He has studied the life of Ellen G White, who was the spiritual founder of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. Today, the movement is a thriving church with over 12 million members.
During her life, Ellen had hundreds of dramatic religious visions which were key in the establishment of the church, helping to convince her followers that she was indeed spiritually inspired. But Professor Holmes believes there may be another far more prosaic explanation for her visions.
He has discovered that at the age of nine, Ellen suffered a severe blow to her head. As a result, she was semi-conscious for several weeks and so ill she never returned to school.
Following the accident, Ellen's personality changed dramatically and she became highly religious and moralistic.
And for the first time in her life, she began to have powerful religious visions.
Professor Holmes is convinced that the blow to Ellen's head caused her to develop temporal lobe epilepsy.
"Her whole clinical course to me suggested the high probability that she had temporal lobe epilepsy. This would indicate to me that the spiritual visions she was having would not be genuine, but would be due to the seizures."
Professor Holmes' diagnosis is a shattering one for the Seventh-day Adventist movement. Their spokesman, Dr Daniel Giang, is a neurologist as well as a member of the church.
Ellen White's visions lasted from 15 minutes to three hours or more - that's quite unusual for seizures
Dr Daniel Giang, Seventh-day Adventist Church
He dismisses the claims, insisting the visions started too long after the accident to have been caused by it. He goes on to say: "Ellen White's visions lasted from 15 minutes to three hours or more. She never apparently had any briefer visions - that's quite unusual for seizures."
We will never know for sure whether religious figures in the past definitely did have the disorder but scientists now believe the condition provides a powerful insight into revealing how religious experience may impact on the brain.
They believe what happens inside the minds of temporal lobe epileptic patients may just be an extreme case of what goes on inside all of our minds.
For everyone, whether they have the condition or not, it now appears the temporal lobes are key in experiencing religious and spiritual belief.