The Neural Basis of Seeing God?

By Neuroskeptic | May 14, 2016 8:28 am

A remarkable case report describes the brain activity in a man at the moment that he underwent a revelatory experience.

According to the authors, Israeli researchers Arzy and Schurr, the man was 46 years old. He was Jewish, but he had never been especially religious. His supernatural experience occured in hospital where he was undergoing tests to help treat his right temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), a condition which he had suffered from for forty years. As part of the testing procedure, the patient stopped taking his anticonvulsant medication. Here’s how the authors describe what happened:

While lying in bed, the patient abruptly “froze” and stared at the ceiling for several minutes, stating later that he felt that God was approaching him. He then started chanting prayers quietly, looked for his Kippa and put it on his head, chanting the prayers more excessively. Then, abruptly, he yelled “And you are Adonai (name of the Hebrew God) the Lord!”, stating later that god had revealed to him, ordering him to bring redemption to the people of Israel.

The patient then stood up, detached the EEG electrodes from his skin, and went around the department trying to convince people to follow him, stating that “God has sent me to you”. When further questioned, he said that he does not have a concrete plan, but he is sure that God is going to instruct him what he and his followers should do on their way to redemption.

What makes this so interesting is that the patient was undergoing online EEG recording at the time of his unexpected messianic moment – right up until he ripped the electrodes off. Arzy and Schurr were therefore able to examine the neural correlates of the behaviour. It turns out that there was an increase in activity in the low-gamma band (30–40 Hz) localized to the left prefrontal cortex, which occured during the onset of the ineffable event:

arzy_schurrThe authors conclude that the man suffered from “grandiose religious delusion of revelation and missionary zeal in the context of post-ictal psychosis (PIP)”. PIP is a form of psychotic episode that can occur after epileptic seizures. As for the involvement of the prefrontal cortex in this PIP, Arzy and Schurr say that this region has been implicated in other forms of psychosis, but ultimately this remains a mystery: we don’t know what happened here, or what triggered the abnormal activity in that particular region as opposed to others. (Also, the authors don’t say how they  controlled for muscle and eye EEG artifacts.)

Still, I was struck by the patient’s cry of “And you are the Lord!”, which sounds like a Biblical prophetic utterance (I bet it sounds even better in Hebrew). Indeed the patient’s experience of seeing God (or a messenger of God), being chosen, and tasked with spreading the word of redemption is reminescent of that of many religious figures, from Moses to Jesus to Mohammed. Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of those leaders had epilepsy, but it is interesting that this phenomenology can occur in this disease.

ResearchBlogging.orgArzy S, & Schurr R (2016). “God has sent me to you”: Right temporal epilepsy, left prefrontal psychosis. Epilepsy & Behavior : E&B, 60, 7-10 PMID: 27176877

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    During High Holy Day services, the Cantor suddenly throws himself upon the floor facing the altar and yells “before you, God, I am nothing!”

    The head Rabbi is stunned. He’s been…outdone. He throws himself upon the floor facing the altar and yells “before you, God, I am nothing!”

    Mr. Moskowitz in the back rows away from the East Wall throws himself upon the floor facing the altar and yells “before you, God, I am nothing!”

    The cantor whispers to the Rabbi, “look who thinks he is nothing before God.” Cf: Youtube v=W-i_9DOCsEY It’s opening explains the mechanism of religion. (A kippa is God’s bullseye for tests of faith. It historically has a very large CEP. More empirically, it is a cover for male pattern baldness against desert sunlight.)

  • John C

    If the power of the experience slowly fades away and is forgotten over time it would be a run of the mill delusion. If he goes on to found a religon with detailed theology, attracting numerous followers that would be much more intriguing.

  • Partlys4int

    Now, I know this might come across silly on a scientific website. But what if the researchers did not just discover the events leading up to the messianic moment, but discovered God’s ways (i.e. using the human brain for his apparitions).
    Just think about it

  • William Herrera

    In other news:

    Neuroscientists find a part of the brain which causes a sensation of motion when stimulated. Skeptics suggest this proves that all motion is ultimately an illusion of the brain :).

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Yes this is why I said “Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of those leaders had epilepsy.”

    • Jassie Kings

      No, not correct, or almost entirely incorrect. We need to understand how all these senses work. They’re all just biological sensors that God had fashioned to help us make meaning of our immediate environment; in this case the physical realm or world. That someone could “stimulate” this part of the brain and cause the sensation of motion should help us know that’s why a particular sense was designed to do that. The right stimulus initiated by the right sense to the appropriate center will cause the correct sensation to be perceived. Light falls on our skin but we see when we open our eyes. Similarly, sounds fall our tongue but we have the appropriate “sensor”, our ears to hear the sound. Now being able to somehow “duplicate” that stimulus and apply it to a given part of the brain causing a perception of certain sensation and then inferring from that that sensation is thus an illusion is a very erroneous conclusion to reach.

  • lump1

    Is not epilepsy frequently associated with fervent religious visionaries? Uncontrollable spasms and twitching that’s obviously not self-directed is often interpreted as the presence of another spirit – a visitation from the Lord or a struggle with a demon. If PIP often seemed religiously significant, it could explain a lot.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Yes it’s known that epilepsy, especially temporal lobe epilepsy, can trigger mystical / religious experiences. What’s interesting about this case is that a very dramatic “Messianic” experience was directly captured on EEG.

    • nathan h

      That could explain why Gd told Miriam and Aaron in the book of Numbers that “Moses is not like any ktber prophet,bc I speak to him face to face”, meaning Moses qas fully conscious, infering the other prophets went into some form of unconsciouness.

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  • norm1066

    Had a brainstem stroke. My doctor says my subsequent shortness of breath is COPD. Gimme a break. And you people are supposed to be schmart?

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  • SherryBikesDC

    The image accompanying this article is not data from an EEG. It looks like a poor attempt to illustrate an FMRI result. I rather doubt this is an accurate report.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Actually the data is (derived from) EEG data using the LORETA method. It looks a bit like fMRI data. As the paper puts it

      “The neural generators underlying the topographic maps of the aforementioned procedure that showed significant differences between conditions were estimated by a distributed linear inverse solution based on a low-resolution electromagnetic tomography (LORETA) [20], [22] and [23]. LORETA uses spatial regularization to select the source configuration that resembles the biophysical behavior of electric vector fields (i.e., activity at one point depends on the activity at neighboring points). The solution space was calculated on a realistic head model that included 3005 nodes, selected from a 6x6x6-mm grid equally distributed within the gray matter of the patient’s MRI.”

  • Robert Karma

    I took a class on the History of Christianity as an undergrad. My professor discussed how the epic conversion story of Saul/Paul sounded to many historians like an epileptic seizure episode. This seems to have been borne out by scientific research on how the brain works. It turns out the Road to Damascus actually went through Paul’s synaptic connections. The repercussions for humanity have been quite profound as Paul was the actual “founding father” of Christianity. Just think of how history would have been different if anti-seizure and anti-psychotic medications had been available in the ancient world. None of the Abrahamic religions would have come into existence.

    • Joshua Bapp

      Confess your sins and Repent! Believe in Christ Jesus and accept him as your savior now. Believing every bit that while he walked on Earth he healed the sick, cast out Demons, made the blind see, made the deaf and dumb speak and hear, and raised the dead, died on a tree not by man’s power or any other but the Father, and our Lord who has power to lay his own life down, then take it up again! So also believing he died, and three days later rose again, go and get Baptized in the name of Jesus believing with all your heart and become a new creation in Christ so that you when you pass from this life hear the words “you have been faithful over a few things, now I make you ruler over many things, come enter the joy of the Lord!” Now Robert Karma, you are inexcusable man! Now you know the way to eternal life, it only comes through Jesus what do you choose? Life eternal? Or being cast into darkness there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth! Go learn what this means!

      • Robert Karma

        Professional mental health services are available to assist you with your delusional beliefs. As long as you don’t harm others, I won’t be concerned but it is disturbing to know that a person in the 21st Century can actually accept such a fairy tale as having any relationship to reality.

        • bwana

          Truly!

    • Joshua Bapp

      I have no patience for those who would cast aside the Word of God as some fabled fairytale, some children story of old, wives tale, or chalk it up to some scientific explanation! I have little patience for the college professors that say Noah wasn’t real, but I tell you Jesus spoke of him and he knowing ALL things does not speak lies! Stay away from the Pharisees and Saducees of our day! They are always mindful of the things of men, never of God! Thinking in there small minds they have wisdom and intelligence but are slow, and foolish. We know that the word of God is foolishness to the unbelievers! They will never understand without God’s Spirit giving wisdom.

    • Dennis Karpf

      That is why the revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the written and oral Torah was made before three (3) million persons. No one could deny or contest the revelation heard and seen by so many and celebrated every year since. Thus revelation in Judaism is distinctly unlike the revelation to a single son or prophet of God as in Christianity,
      Islam, Buddhism, Zoroasterianism and other religions.

      • Robert Karma

        No historical evidence other than faith-based assertions for Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and all of the other religions found throughout history created from the fertile mind of the human imagination. As George Harrison once said, “It’s all in the mind.”

        • Dennis Karpf

          Dear Robert you are simply wrong as to revelation in Exodus. Since 2010 there are numerous archeological findings supporting the Exodus. Much synthesis of this evidence has been summarized by Rabbi Professor Joshua Berman in Mosaic Magazine if you are interested.

          You claim there is no historical evidence for this revelation in Judaism. Yet you ignore that the Passover has been celebrated every year since it’s occurrence; do you claims there was mass hysteria or delusional hallucination by the millions at Mt. Sinai? Parenthetically, Napolean after the Battle of the Pyramids in 1799, nearly drowned when crossing the Sea of Reeds where his horse and his adjutants were trapped without warning by near instantaneous rushing tide and waters just like the Egyptians. This was the closest Napolean ever came to death even in his 60 battles. This event is memorialized in his letters as set forth in Napolean by Roberts. Perhaps you are a fundamentalist atheist.

          • Robert Karma

            Dennis: Provide some peer-reviewed publications presenting evidence that any of the supernatural claims made by any religion has falsifiable merit. Sure, there were Jews in Judea, Muslims in the Middle East, and Christians who split off from the Jews who spread across the Near East and then Europe. There is no question that followers of these Abrahamic religions existed and spread their supernatural beliefs with them. Just within the history of Christianity, you see how there was never “one true belief” as there were a diverse range of beliefs from the start. Now we have 217 self-proclaimed Christian denominations in the US and 35,000 independent or nondenominational churches representing more than 12,200,000 adherents. (As of 2010) Christians can’t agree among themselves on what being a Christian actually is because there is no definitive evidence for the supernatural belief. Thus, it is open to interpretation and typically reflects the individual’s own worldview. This is why we see the vast majority of people follow the religion they were raised with confirming the cultural aspect of supernatural belief versus the use of reason and evidence. So until a supernatural being or beings decide to provide some evidence for their existence, we can keep them in the same category as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, fairies, and little gray aliens who probe humans they’ve abducted. Those who make the claim, (that there is a supernatural being), have the burden of proof. We are still waiting for said proof.

          • Dennis Karpf

            Dear Robert please consider this my final reply to your demand for evidence for what you call “supernatural claims”. Your argument is simple, neat, and false for three essential reasons. First, you are unaware of the historical and archeological evidence available. Second, you are unschooled in what the evidence can and cannot prove. Thirdly, you fail to realize that an accurate description of physical fact in history depends on what categories and terms are used. You ask for proof of ancient historical fact as if it is a simple chemical formula or physics calculation. You miss the key understanding that historical events are not subject to proof in the same way as a mathematical equation, a logical proposition, or a scientific experiment that can be reproduced in a laboratory. Rather, historical “proof” normally emerges through the cumulative accumulation of artifacts and writings. For instance in 2010 for the first time a seal of King David was discovered leading many archeologists to now believe that Jerusalem was indeed the major city and capital as described in scripture. Furthermore, in 2015 for he first time a Byzantine-era potsherd from the Jewish Temple Mount likely contains an engraving of the holy site’s menorah also biblical in origin and description. Finally, also in 2015 for the first time researchers sifting through rubble from the Temple Mount found an ancient stone seal that dates to the 10th and 11th centuries BCE. That is the period of the reigns of the biblical Kings David and Solomon when the First Temple was built 40 centuries after the Exodus. Without disrespect, your training and learning is clearly not in history, archeology or religion. I will presume you have training in the physical sciences so I will try to put this in terms which may resonate better for you.
            A quantum force on the sub-atomic level is viewed as a series of points; yet, on a grand scale as a fluctuating wave. Biology and physics constitute two distinct languages for talking scientifically about the same physical world. Physicists describe the world as a grand mathematical tapestry woven by different types of fluctuating quantum fields. On the other hand evolutionary biologists characterize the same world as an endless array of adaptations and functions achieved by specific organisms through a never ending process of diversification and selection over eons of self-replication. Both ways are convincing, predictive and useful. But the key point you miss about my discussion of the Exodus as an example, is that no scientific thinker expects the physicists to replace the biologists and vice versa.
            In ancient history lack of direct evidence does not disprove an ancient event. Nor can the existence of evidence only in later texts be taken as an argument against their reliability. For example, the discovery of ancient Troy came about on the evidence of the much later writings of Homer. A good portion of archeologists, Bible scholars, and historians conclude from the evidence that the Exodus did indeed occur. You have asked for authoritative sources, so I will give you a few. Please do read them. Israel in Egypt by James K. Hoffmeier is a good compendium and first start. Then read the excellent article by the world regarded physicist, Jeremy England, ‘The Partly Predictable World: The Hebrew Bible Is An Act of Reconciliation Between Belief and Scientific Method,” Commentary Magazine, November, 2015; the editor of Biblical Archeology Review, Hershel Shanks in Ha’aretz Magazine, Nov. 5, 1999; finally if you have the fortitude you may read, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by K. A. Kitchen. Finally, you should read the works of Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, and Professor Benjamin Sommer.
            To put it bluntly, there are no archeological or historical reasons to doubt core elements of the Torah’s presentation of Israel’s history. These core elements are as follows: 1.The ancestors of the Israelites included an important group who came from Mesopotamia; 2.the story of the slavery and Exodus is perfectly plausible within the framework of Egyptian and Near Eastern history. The Exodus is dated by most to about 1250 BCE. Letters discovered describe the life of work gangs from Pharaonic Egypt paint a picture very close to the biblical report. 3. There was a suprising rescue from Egyptian bondage; 4 there was extensive wandering in the desert by the discovery of the remains of extensive Egyptian influence, habitation and forts along the coast at Deiral-Balakh. 5. There was a parting of the Sea of Reeds and destruction of the Egyptians (remember Napolean’s experience I previously referenced); 5.the Israelites experienced a revelation that played a defining role in the formation of the Jewish national, religious and ethnic identity along with ritual, ethical and moral monotheism; 6. That the Israelites settled in the hill country of the land of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1200 BCE; 7.that the Israelites formed kingdoms there a few centuries later, around 1000 BCE; and that these kingdoms were eventually destroyed by Assyrian and Babylonian armies.
            Finally, not only at Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot, but also in Judaism’s daily liturgy and it’s weekly sanctification of the Sabbath, Jews for over 5,000 years proclaim that their identity is based on something that happened in history–not an inspiring fiction or metaphor. When we Jews recite the benediction before the Shema each day or the Kiddush on Friday night, we with a firm conviction and clear conscience, mean what we say.

          • Robert Karma

            Thankfully, my Thesis committee didn’t hold the dim view you have taken of my abilities and education in History. I earned my MA and have been working on my PhD. So I’m quite familiar with what my discipline can and cannot do. Anyone throughout history who has made supernatural claims has failed to prove their claims at an impressive 100% rate. So while your verbal sophistry is impressive, it still comes down to special pleading and faith-based assertions with no basis in reality. Sorry, but I can’t take you seriously when you push myth stories as historical fact. That is a falsehood that must be called out. If you want to say you have faith in such things, I won’t argue with you. It’s only when you cross the line and pretend your faith-based supernatural claims are factual that you need to be corrected by the evidence of history.

          • chad hatten

            seems to be a militant athiest. The exodus is well documented, even the secular believe it.

          • liquidassets

            I’m not an atheist and I don’t believe it.

      • chad hatten

        the exodus is fact, the other are made up by a single person

  • NikFromNYC

    Quote:

  • smut clyde

    post-ictal psychosis (PIP)

    This is really fascinating. The temporal-lobe brainstorm had happened several hours earlier — “several hours after a complex partial seizure of temporal origin” — belatedly leading to the cortical equivalent of an aftershock. But centred in the other side of the brain.

    How does this work? It sounds like this was a completely new experience for the patient — he was not chatting to YHWH every time. I suppose if he’d gone off his epilim (or whatever) as part of the testing regimen, there is the complicating factor.that all of his brain was in an excitable state.

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  • JR

    Waow! I managed to replicate their results! Oh wait…

    PS: you can test this issue yourself on a public dataset with this script: https://goo.gl/dioTQ2

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks for the comment, indeed the authors don’t describe any form of muscle or ocular artefact correction.

      So maybe this is a case of “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

    • https://twitter.com/committovote LincolnX

      This is a perfect example of why it’s a horrible idea to conclude anything from an n of 1. As you point out, the control or rejection of eye movement artifacts are undetermined. Plus, it’s not unusual to see postictal activity in the inferotemporal region. Many think of epilepsy as being a temporal lobe phenomena – but seizures can arise from many parts of the brain, many of which show sharp wave events that register “hot” in reconstructed images. The larger data on religious experience and meditative states indicates regions of the parietal lobe that may be associated with dissociative states. So while this is an interesting excuse to frame the neural correlates of religiosity, there’s not much “there” there.

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  • ScotianMama

    Check out Dr Vicky Khatib-Brown in Toronto a team along with herself did a study. Neuroplasticity and the Manifestation of Glory was revealed.

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  • Mikosch

    Isn’t this the way Islam was revealed to Mohammed?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      But not only Mohammed. Jesus after all received his “calling” after seeing God (or rather the Holy Spirit, but close enough) in a revelatory experience after being baptized. Then Paul was called by a vision of Jesus, on the road to Damascus. etc.

  • yeda_peda

    What i shall tell you we think we humans are smart. we are not. There is always a intellegent power high in skies who decides things.I had a occurunce where the spirit entered my body and showed me the future it really happened. So there many things..life is not complicated.
    We will try to find scientific explanation for such simple thigns is foolish
    Science cant explain everything it cant .. Trying to tell relegious people are weak ,or suffering from depression or some brain disorder is also useless..actually it is the unlucky who doesnt know the occurance of such a beautiful phenomena called the higher spirts ..God .
    Every one can look for it ..all you have to do is be simple ..talk to your heart …and try talking to spirit it always talks to you.. You need to be a child for this.. best of luck..

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  • Tamra

    I’d be interested in a neural comparison between this psychosis and a samadhi experience from meditation.

  • bwana

    Sounds like we’re getting closer to explaining how man created god!? Hallucinations work for me…

  • Jeddy Khan

    Religion is when God has been seen by a specific individual. Fact is God will manifest himself to everyone at the same time and they will accept there will be no need for religious leaders and prophets. His light would be so bright that it will blind those who have never accepted His existence, they will only see a rising darkness nothing else.

  • chad hatten

    interesting post, great info

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  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa

    was already described by Gazzaniga in his book The Social Brain https://www.amazon.com/Social-Brain-Discovering-Networks-Mind/dp/0465078524 30 years ago but not using very iffy fMRI results but factual observed results in epileptic patients. He concluded that the ‘god’ neural network does in fact exist based on the observation that patients with a specific damaged part suddenly became fanatical religious, even to the point becoming a believer in any religion you proposed to them.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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