"Persinger speculates that our left temporal lobe maintains our sense of
self. When that region is stimulated but the right stays quiescent, the
left interprets this as a sensed presence, as the self departing the body,
or of God."7
But exactly how are these religious states produced? Our "sense of self", says Persinger, "is maintained by the left hemisphere temporal cortex. Under normal brain functioning this is matched by the corresponding systems in the right hemisphere temporal cortex. When these two systems becomes uncoordinated, such as during a temporal lobe seizure or a transient event, the left hemisphere interprets the uncoordinated activity as 'another self', or a 'sensed presence' thus accounting for subjects' experiences of a 'presence' in the room. Sometimes, it seems to be God, angels, demons, aliens, or ghosts. Sometimes, one has a sense of leaving one's body, as in near-death and in out-of-body experiences.
The Power of the God Experience
"In general, the more severe the disturbance, the more intense the God Experience. . . .
The power of the God Experience shames any known therapy.
With a single burst in the temporal lobe, people find structure
and meaning in seconds. With it comes the personal conviction
of truth and the sense of self-selection."
-- Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D. Neuropsychological Bases
of God Beliefs, p.33 and 17
When the amygdala (the deep-seated region of the brain involved with emotion) is involved in the transient events, emotional factors significantly enhance the experience which, when connected to spiritual themes, can be a powerful force for intense religious feelings."8
However, when one has such experiences in a cold, clinical laboratory, the psychological impact of the induced "presence" is greatly reduced. The set and setting of the triggering experience is of overwhelming importance for its self-interpreted context and can even determine whether or not the experience occurs. This is akin to the difficulty in having a primal feeling in such an environment.
Thus, having spiritual feelings in a religious location such as in a church, mosque or even in one's home without the helmet and without being hooked up to laboratory equipment, could easily convince the experiencer that he is being favored with God's presence.
Having a far less intense experience, as one lives one's day-to-day life, can have a much more intensely persuasive effect. This is what happened, during periods of isolation and prayer, to St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and all of the Christian and other religious mystics both in and out of convents and monasteries.
Such "God experiences" when combined with unitiveness (feelings of being one with God) have even resulted in the martyrdom of some Islamic clerics (e.g., Hallaj in the tenth century) because of such claims. In the Catholic Church, Meister Eckhart's writings, for this reason, were condemned as heretical by Pope John XXII.9
Osama bin Laden
"I was ordered to fight the people until they say
there is no God but Allah and his prophet Muhammad."
-- Osama bin Laden - in the Dec. 21, 2001 video
about the WTC terrorist attack
"Terrorism feels and never reasons, and therefore is always right."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
"(Barbarity) . . . performed and condoned in the name of a higher purpose constitutes regression to infantile states of automatic obedience and ecstatic emotionism. Brutalized children of all ages, invest their 'direct actions' with historic significance."
-- Frederick J. Hacker, M. D., Crusaders Criminals Crazies
"Not surprisingly, their . . . behaviors and psychological experiences are predominated by a sense of personal destiny, the most supreme form of infantile egoism. Each one has been selected to give a message to the world. Like the committed preacher or the proselytizing prophet, they have a sense of the special - their experiences are somehow exceptional."
-- Dr. Michael A. Persinger, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, p. 20
A contemplative member of a religious order or a lay person can have a God experience and easily become convinced that he or she is having a spontaneous visit by God Himself and has been particularly chosen by Him to accomplish great deeds. This was the origin of many of the world's religions and of their charitable works - and perhaps, unfortunately, may have also contributed to not a few religious wars and terrorist pogroms. From whence comes the inspiration of Osama bin Laden to lead, and of fellow fundamentalist Muslims to follow into their personal suicidal rampages of terror?
In 1983, Dr. Persinger wrote about the serious implications which could follow if temporal lobe transients are a source of religious experiences. He feels that since the temporal lobes are also associated with aggressive acts, such acts become imbued with "personal meaningfulness" to the experiencer.
". . . is there a genetic propensity to kill with the conviction of cosmic consent following specific types of TLTs? Second, many acute religious behaviors are correlated with opiate-like complacency, helplessness, and the expectation of divine deliverance; how would the decision-making patterns of people who occupy powerful political positions be influenced by TLTs during the threat of self-annihilation? Third, if TLTs are primarily biogenic neuropatterns, they will be simulated ultimately, by modern technology. If they can be evoked by artificial methods, what are the clinical implications for the control of religious experiences?"10
Over a period of fifteen years Persinger included the following query in a questionnaire given to university students: "Would you kill someone if you were told to by God?" Consistently, about seven per cent of the students said that they would. These were also the ones who had responded with answers that placed them above average in religiosity, that is, they attended religious services regularly and took part in religious observances consistently. Seven per cent seems like a small number, but a number large enough that, with cultish indoctrination, could do much aggressive damage to enemies, both real and imagined.11
* * *
Perhaps, there was always an inborn tendency - a susceptibility to spiritual feeling, if you will, in the potential mystic. Compounded with very early traumas, this inborn proclivity might come to fruition. Persinger writes, "A variety of idiosyncratic factors influence temporal lobe stability. They include birth traumas, mechanical damage (concussions) during development, degenerative diseases, hormonal fluctuations, and the development of scleroses."12 (My emphasis) See on this website, Childhood and Fantasies of Medieval Mystics by Ralph Frenken, Ph.D., a German psychologist.
So prayer and meditation are not the only ways to access our God consciousness. Knowledge that temporal lobe epileptics had this tendency has been known for hundreds of years. It has also been found to be more common in those experiencing serious injuries or illnesses (e.g., St. Ignatius Loyola), having had automobile accidents, enduring great fatigue and malnutrition, long isolation and privation, and undergoing deep experiental psychotherapy.
These can all trigger those brain areas which universally dispose us to having religious and spiritual experiences. Psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and the Aztec's sacred mushrooms, also have the ability to connect us with the God parts of our brains. See the Psychedelic Section of the Primal Psychotherapy Page.
But, all this supposed evidence does not prove that God does not exist. In a Maclean's article, Dr. Persinger is quoted as saying, "I am interested in the part of the brain that mediates the God experience." As far as believing that the God experience is actually caused by God's presence, he admits, "It's a possibility."13
Although an atheist,
"(h)is research, Persinger said, showed that "religion is a property of the brain, only the brain and has little to do with what's out there." Those who believe the new science disproves the existence of God say they are holding up a mirror to society about the destructive power of religion. They say that religious wars, fanaticism and intolerance spring from dogmatic beliefs that particular gods and faiths are unique, rather than facets of universal brain chemistry."14
Sharon Begley, in her Newsweek cover story article, Religion and the Brain, quotes Wheaton College psychologist David Wulff:
"Since we all have the brain circuits that mediate spiritual experiences, probably most people have the capacity for having such experiences. But, it is possible to foreclose that possibility. If you are rational, controlled, and not prone to fantasy, you will probably resist the experience.”15 It is like resisting hypnosis - you can willfully refuse to undergo the experiences or refuse to place any confidence in the experiences you are having.
It is agreed by most that the temporal lobe is not where the material is stored. However, stimulating those lobes allows for the release of unconscious material to begin. Penfield believed that his results only suggested ". . . that there is a scanning mechanism, in the temporal cortex, that is capable of activating the thread of facilitation at a distance."16 There are any number of sensory elements of such feelings ( e.g., vision, touch and sense of smell, etc. ) and access to a number of brain areas may be required to load into consciousness the different stored elements of the original experience.
"Against data, social opinion, and sometimes direct confrontation that the experience was a lie,
people will still persist (in the) validity of their own perceptions. . . . I cannot overemphasize the importance of the sense of conviction produced by these experiences. Following these small alterations in the temporal lobe, the person becomes convinced that what he or she has experienced is absolutely right. No amount of rational conversation or data can sway the opinion."
-- Dr. Michael A. Persinger, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, p. 42, p. 25
What typically are the personality factors which make one a good candidate for the electro-magnetic helmet? For that matter, what kind of person would have such experiences spontaneously? Surprisingly, being easily hypnotized is one of the most significant factors which would predict such success. Interestingly enough, the list of types of persons or conditions which lend themselves to entering altered states definitely includes those who are neurotic. This adds some evidence that there is a relationship between the mystic state, paranormal phenomena and repressed early traumatic feelings.[See on this website my article, Psychosis, Mysticism and Feelings.]
In two internet articles, Todd Murphy, the developer of the Shakti helmet, lists about fifty types of people and/or of behaviors which show an ease of their entering into spiritual or altered states of consciousness. A very high percentage of these factors also point to those neurotics who would have relatively easy access to their traumas in primal therapy or other regressive therapies, because of incomplete defenses against their repressed pain.
Some of those listed by Murphy include, -- those who experience déjà vu frequently, write poetry, feel the presence of spirits, often feel that they are not alone, keep a diary or journal, have a history of hallucinogenic/psychedelic drug use, are in menopause, have lots of sex, have no sex at all, do bodywork, do vipassana meditation, have kuldalini-type experiences (body tinglings, etc.), think often of suicide, find that being in love is all consuming, were sexually or physically abused as children, are homosexual, have anxiety attacks, have an undue fear of death, and who fast frequently. All of these, and others, find it easier to have spiritual feelings.17, 18
Thus, it would seem that there is a positive co-relation between overt neurosis and ease of spiritual access. Is this ease of access the direct result of the existence of the memories of repressed trauma or rather a genetic inborn neuroanatomical proclivity? It would be reasonable to assume that the production of material in altered states of consciousnes is due to the interoperation of both factors.
Who Can Successfully Use the God Machine?
Why do clients undergoing holotropic breathwork become more spiritual the longer they are in therapy? Perhaps this means that as access to one's unconsciousness increases, one's defenses against the contents of repressed traumas become less rigid. Maybe the susceptibility to the helmet's forces increases as the number and length of sessions increases. What implications would this have to Janov's theories of the association of spirituality with repressed trauma?
. . . Australian researchers found that people who report mystical and spiritual experiences tend to have unusually easy access to subliminal consciousness. “In people whose
unconscious thoughts tend to break through into consciousness more readily, we find some correlation with spiritual experiences,” says psychologist Michael Thalbourne of the University of Adelaide. Unfortunately, scientists are pretty clueless about what allows subconscious thoughts to pop into the consciousness of some people and not others.
The single strongest predictor of such experiences, however, is something called “dissociation.” In this state, different regions of the brain disengage from others. “This theory, which explains hypnotizability so well, might explain mystical states, too,” says Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society, which debunks paranormal phenomena. “Something really seems to be going on in the brain, with some module dissociating from the rest of the cortex.”19
Possible Implications For The Regressive Therapies
The Persinger neuro-electromagnetic technique may force into consciousness repressed material or perhaps symbolic representations of such material. But, perhaps it will just cause an overload of the repressed material which might be experienced as a transpersonal event. Perhaps, the technique will only work for some - those who already have easy access. Can and should this neuro-electromagnetic technique be combined with a regressive therapy?
Perhaps there are good reasons why this particular technique should not be used in psychotherapy. But since it brings up memories as well as their associated feelings it would seem to be worthwhile to investigate its applicabilities. What would happen if one used such a device during a primal experience? With refinements, one day it may be possible to access stored memory circuits during a particular period of one's life. But, this may be just speculation as the addition of this technique to regressive psychotherapy methodology may prove to be useless.
Since spiritual feelings are an important element in the experience, it may be helpful to compare the theoretical position of Arthur Janov with that of Stanislav Grof who have diametrically opposed views of the significance of spirituality in the regressive psychotherapies.
Dr. Grof and others have noticed that when a certain point is reached in the holotropic breathwork process what becomes important for many are issues of spirituality rather than the problem which first brought them to therapy. He feels that spirituality is a normal step of progression in deep regressive therapies. He emphasizes that, not necessarily religion, but
On the other hand, Dr. Janov believes that the presence of spirituality is per se proof that the client is defending against deep, early traumatic memories. My understanding of his position is that the presence of spirituality in one's life is a marker which reveals that the person has unintegrated past trauma upon which his spirituality is being projected and which serves as a defense against this material becoming conscious. He believes that the deeper we probe into our pain with connected primal feelings, the less spiritual we will eventually become.
"(s)pirituality in its genuine form is a legitimate and important dimension of existence and it is incorrect to discount it as a product of ignorance, superstition, primitive magical
thinking, or pathology. Mystical experiences should not be seen as indications of mental
disease, but as normal and highly desirable manifestations of the human psyche that
have extraordinary healing and transformative potential."20
Of the two psychotherapies, Grof's holotropic breathwork, at least theoretically, would seem better suited to incorporate such techniques. Such stimulation of the brain during a holotropic breathwork session might be similar to the therapeutic effects (the regressions) triggered by evocative music and an over-oxygenated body system - the result of the therapy modus - deeper and more rapid breathing than normal.
One criticism in the comparison of holotropic breathwork with LSD psychotherapy is that the former more typically does not elicit, as readily as does LSD, such profound transpersonal material as, for example, 'God experiences.' Since Grof feels that sometimes one's access to experiental transpersonal material is needed to resolve a present-day problem and since there are some who cannot access such material readily, perhaps the introduction of electro-magnetic therapy into the breathwork process might be useful. It may thereby fill an important therapy void left when all psychedelic drug use, therapeutic and otherwise, was banned in the 1960s.
It is noted by many holotropic breathwork facilitators that clients in primal therapy have a ready access to their breathwork modality. It seems to them that the resolution of some traumas in primal therapy lowers defenses and allows relatively easy access to their client's repressed feelings. This includes access, in breathwork, to both autobiographical material as well as transpersonal material, although the latter is not typically accessed in primal therapy.
I have had only a few experiences in Grof's holotropic breathwork. My first included a unitive experience with God the creator, although it was soon replaced by an age six tonsillectomy traumatic re-living. The God experience had been accessed primarily through the use of deep breathing and music. Perhaps, Persinger's magic helmet, which is touted to encourage such experiences, would lead to new and more effective forms of regressive psychotherapy.
After my first experience in holotropic breathwork, I became convinced that there was a close relationship between repressed trauma and transpersonal experiences, such as unitive God feelings, out-of-body experiences, near death experiences, alien abduction scenes, prior lives, etc. This material being experienced must come from somewhere. Perhaps, some are symbolic representations of earlier repressed traumas. Time will tell. [See my article From Primal Therapy To Holotropic Breathwork ].
"The notion of God is not only there to quell our Pains but to fulfill our key, unfulfilled needs (to be listened to, protected, watched over, loved, etc.). It is the notion that begins to produce the endorphines that literally answer our prayers for surcease. The idea of God is the real power, yet we imagine that the relief is the workings of a deity. We ourselves bring on the relief by fiats of faith and hope. Those two psychological factors arise out of Pain and suppress it. The power is inside of us; positive belief has the power to tranquilize."21
In spite of these two radically opposing viewpoints concerning spirituality, could Persinger's technique be used to supplement or expedite the therapeutic efficiency of different forms of regressive psychotherapies? What would be the effect of having regression therapy sessions under the stimulus of electro-magnetic energy fields?
* * *
This article began with the earlier musings of Dr. Arthur Janov about the possibility of the future use of a type of electro-probe in primal therapy. During the researching for this article, I found a source to purchase such a device, although thankfully, like Persinger's device it works non-invasively! It has the appearance of a bicycle helmet.
1Arthur Janov. The Anatomy of Mental Illness: The Scientific Basis of Primal Therapy G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1971, p. 84
2Wilder Penfield. The Role of the Temporal Cortex in Certain Psychical Phenomena, The Journal of Mental Science, July, 1955, p. 451
3 Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind, 1975, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NY, p. 21
4Wilder Penfield. op. cit., p. 458
5 Michael A. Persinger. Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1983, 57.
6Quoted in The Times of London, Brain Storm by Anjana Ahuja, October 29, 2001 - http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,74-2001373571,00.html
7Newsweek, Mystic Vision or Brain Circuits At Work? - Religion and the Brain, May 7, 2001, by Sharon Begley
8 Michael Shermer. How We Believe: The Search For God In the Age of Science, 2000, p. 66 (Quoted at http://star.arm.ac.uk/~mdm/Heretic/originof.htm
9Persinger, op. cit., p. 1262.
10Wiseman, James A., To Be God With God: The Autotheistic Sayings of the Mystics, Theological Studies, June, 1990.
11Buckman, Robert, M.D. Bloodshed, Belonging and the Need to Believe, Queen's Quarterly, Kingston Canada, Spring, 2001, p. 31
12Persinger, op. cit., p. XX.
13Nichols, Mark, Maclean's, Secrets of the Brain, January 22, 1996
14Shankar Vedantam, Tracing the Synapses of Our Spirituality, The Washington Post, June 17, 2001
15Newsweek. op. cit.
16 Wilder Penfield. quoted in Arthur Janov's The Anatomy of Mental Illness: The Scientific Basis of Primal Therapy, p 66.
17 Todd Murphy. Spiritual Aptitude Test . From The Spiritual Brain (Website)
18____________. The Earth Beneath Your Feet:
Looking At Sacred Lands. From The Spiritual Brain (website).
19Newsweek. op. cit.
20 Stanislav Grof. The Future of Psychology - Conceptual Challenges to Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychotherapy (Internet article)
21 Arthur Janov. Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of The Birth Experience, p. 197.
Articles and book reviews on the Primal Psychotherapy Page which relate to mysticism: