I’ve been reading Tanya Luhrmann’s best-selling book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Relationship with God, which describes her four years of association with an evangelical Christian sect. (You should read it!) Luhrmann is an anthropologist, and sought to understand how these people forge such a close relationship with God. One of her many conclusions is that for these Christians, a personal relationship with God arises through practice: constant prayer, various acts that people in the church undergo (being prayed for while crying, for instance), and endless striving to hear God’s voice. Eventually, the practice pays off: people suddenly realize that God is “speaking to them,” and from then on their faith is strong and immovable. (Luhrmann is not overtly religious, I think, and doesn’t endorse the sect’s views as providing evidence for God.) What struck me is the amount of hard work the Christians need to get to this state, though the importance of “personal revelation” in sustaining faith also reminded me of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.
While reading the book, I pondered what kind of neurological and biochemical changes these people were inducing in themselves through their “practice,” for of course I don’t believe they’re getting in touch with God at all. But my question has been partially answered in a new piece by psychiatrist Oliver Sacks in The Atlantic: “Seeing God in the third millenium.“ Sacks explains how near-death- and out-of-body experiences can arise as the byproduct of accidents, traumas, diseases, or manipulation of the brain by experimenters. He totally debunks the “heaven” experience of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who’s gotten wealthy with his new book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. (I swear, it’s easy to get rich these days: just have an experience of Heaven when you’re ill or unconscious.)
Alexander, you may recall, says that he must really have seen Heaven because during his bout with meningitis, which put him in a coma, his cerebral cortex was shut down. His book is of course taken by credulous Americans as proof of God. But Sacks points out the fallacy with that:
It is not so easy, however, to dismiss neurological processes. Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs [near-death experiences] tend to occur.
Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.
To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.
Coincidentally, and felicitously, Sacks takes up Luhrmann’s observations, concluding (as I did), that these people are, through their “practice,” eventually inducing the hallucination that they’re talking to God:
Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of “presence” are accompanied by intense emotion — emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one — but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.)
In the last decade or two, there has been increasingly active research in the field of “spiritual neurosciences.” There are special difficulties in this research, for religious experiences cannot be summoned at will; they come, if at all, in their own time and way — the religious would say in God’s time and way. Nonetheless, researchers have been able to demonstrate physiological changes not only in pathological states like seizures, OBEs, and NDEs, but also in positive states like prayer and meditation. Typically these changes are quite widespread, involving not only primary sensory areas in the brain, but limbic (emotional) systems, hippocampal (memory) systems, and the prefrontal cortex, where intentionality and judgement reside.
Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience.