NCBI ROFL: Moses on the mount: holy revelation or altitude sickness?

By ncbi rofl | April 5, 2012 7:00 pm

Why revelations have occurred on mountains? Linking mystical experiences and cognitive neuroscience.

“The fundamental revelations to the founders of the three monotheistic religions, among many other revelation experiences, had occurred on a mountain. These three revelation experiences share many phenomenological components like feeling and hearing a presence, seeing a figure, seeing lights, and feeling of fear. In addition, similar experiences have been reported by non-mystic contemporary mountaineers. The similarities between these revelations on mountains and their appearance in contemporary mountaineers suggest that exposure to altitude might affect functional and neural mechanisms, thus facilitating the experience of a revelation. Different functions relying on brain areas such as the temporo-parietal junction and the prefrontal cortex have been suggested to be altered in altitude. Moreover, acute and chronic hypoxia significantly affect the temporo-parietal junction and the prefrontal cortex and both areas have also been linked to altered own body perceptions and mystical experiences. Prolonged stay at high altitudes, especially in social deprivation, may also lead to prefrontal lobe dysfunctions such as low resistance to stress and loss of inhibition. Based on these phenomenological, functional, and neural findings we suggest that exposure to altitudes might contribute to the induction of revelation experiences and might further our understanding of the mountain metaphor in religion. Mystical and religious experiences are important not only to the mystic himself, but also to many followers, as it was indeed with respect to the leaders of the three monotheistic religions. Yet, concerning its subjective character, mystical experiences are almost never accessible to the scholars interested in examining them. The tools of cognitive neuroscience make it possible to approach religious and mystical experiences not only by the semantical analysis of texts, but also by approaching similar experiences in healthy subjects during prolonged stays at high altitude and/or in cognitive paradigms. Cognitive neurosciences, in turn, might profit from the research of mysticism in their endeavor to further our understanding of mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self consciousness.”

Photo: flickr/Horia Varlan

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