What Can Science Teach Us About the Mystical Experience?
At Acculturated Emily Esfahani Smith dives into the mystery of transcendence.
January 4, 2013 - 3:05 pm
Religion, God, transcendence, spirituality: do these things exist independently of the human mind or are they products of neurochemical firings of the brain? When Saul had his revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, had he fallen under the spell of a seizure, as some have claimed, or was it a flash of the divine that caused his conversion to Christianity? When Fyodor Dostoevsky experienced the self-transcendent moment he describes below, was he momentarily elevated into a mysterious mystical realm or was he having a fit of temporal lobe epilepsy?
The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don’t remember anything else. You all, healthy people . . . can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit . . . I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.
Over at the Atlantic, two scientists and doctors–the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks and radiologist Richard Gunderman–are debating these fascinating questions.
In his new book Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks writes, “One must wonder to what extent hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.” In his recent piece for the Atlantic titled “Seeing God in the Third Millenium,” he went on to argue:
Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.
When I interviewed Sacks for a profile, his words were slightly softer: “There is always a brain basis for these various religious states, although this says nothing of the meaning or value of hallucinations. I don’t think it’s at all reductive.”
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