Parents, the Image of God,
and Mysticism

Reflections On Some of the Writings of Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D.

by John A. Speyrer

This article attempts to investigate the nature of the events of infancy which comprise the mystic's "learning history" as expressed in selected writings of Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D.

In Neuropsychological Bases of God Experiences, the author, over 25 times, makes reference to the interplay between the parents and the mystic-to-be's period of infancy which, he writes, will become the material content of their future God experiences.

Dr. Persinger believes that these early, no-longer-remembered encounters and feelings when triggered, make up the content of future mystical experiences. Unfortunately, he gives us little specific information about his theories of the nature of this infantile/parental relationship.
-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister

"The psychodynamics of mystics, their symbol formations
and their actions are based on excessive early trauma. . . .
There is evidence that medieval mystics were deprived
and also emotionally and sexually abused as children."

-- Ralph Frenken, Ph.D.
Childhood and Fantasies of Medieval Mystics

Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and head of the Neuroscience Research Group at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, Ontario. In 1987, he published his important work, Neuropsychological Bases of God Experiences. He writes from a behavioral psychologist's perspective. Perhaps this is the reason why his book neither analyzes nor gives any opinion of the nature of one's early experiences which he considers to be the source of the God Experience. For whatever reason, this omission makes the book incomplete.

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The ability to have a feeling episode of oneness or closeness with God is due to an evolutionary development of the human brain - specifically the temporal lobe with its associated hippocamus and amyglada structures. Along with other neuro-scientists, Dr. Persinger holds that micro-seizures in the brain's temporal lobes which are caused by and exacerbated by present-day emotional upsets trigger these God Experience feelings in those with susceptible temporal lobes. According to Persinger, the content of the inner manifestation of a God Experience depends upon the interactions and early relationships between the infant and its parent(s).

He writes that in such God Experiences, "the most fundamental theme . . . is the relationship between the child and the parent. For it is during these earlier years that the infantile sense of self is permanently shaped and bound to the patterns of parental behavior."

Is the author referring to loving parental relationships or abusive relationships, or to both or either kinds of relationships? There is very little in his book about how the infant might feel about those unquantified "patterns." Nothing appears about parental love or its lack in influencing the content of the mystical experiences. Except for general cultures, Dr. Persinger gives no examples of how different types of upbringings can influence the God Experience.

In his 1983 article, Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis, he expresses the belief that there are "memories for which there are no retrieval formats." Those of us in the regressive psychotherapies know that such experiences, no matter from which developmental period, remain accessible. Perhaps, he is referring to happy experiences which are much rarely accessed compared to negative ones.

Parental care can be both loving and and at other times the source of trauma. Dr. Persinger mentions neither birth traumas nor intrauterine traumas as playing a role in the generation of mystical images, although he does discuss the significance of themes of "nascence" which are common in the God Experiences.

Does the susceptibility to having the God Experience related to the emotions and feelings of the infant during the parental relationship? And what is the relationship of early feelings of the infant towards its parent have on the experience of God? And what is the effect of early rejective trauma on the spiritual contents of the mystical experience? This material obviously might influence the nature of a God Experience. Dr. Persinger writes that "such experiences are "loaded with emotional references." What is the relationship of these emotions to one's early parental relationships? What types of infantile emotions are involved? I could not find satisfactory answers to these important questions - responses to which should have comprised an essential element of his book.

The author writes that anxiety and stress are powerful triggers of the God Experience for those who have susceptible temporal lobes. At times he seems to imply that poor parenting can be an important factor in the generation of such God Experiences since those who have had a lack of love and meeting of needs are also the same ones who are quite susceptible to anxiety and stress. He also believes that the death of a loved one is high on the list of powerful present-day stressors and are often powerful stimulants for such experiences. How is the death of a loved one in the present related to one's early parental relationship? The reader needs more clarity - the reader would want to know what is the author's belief.

Yet, Dr. Persinger writes clearly when he explains how the attributes which the infant has of his parent(s) are transferred to his later in life perceptions of the qualities of God. As Charlotte Kasl has written, "Cruel parents, cruel Gods." Persinger also believes that the helplessness of the infant makes him consider this same relationship to God as he had towards a parent during his infancy.

He makes a good case for children and adults unconsciously attaching parental qualities to their personal concept of God, but says little or nothing about how parental attitudes can set up a person for a God Experience. What is it in the relationship between the parent and the child which sets the stage for the God Experience to be produced? Which memories of infancy (and perhaps even before) are usually involved?

Referring to a culture where children's needs are unmet, the author explains how their concept of God is influenced:

"When the child-rearing practices of a society are severe, the negative properties are projected onto the concept of God. The local deity is depicted as punishing and aversive; it is a thing that must be appeased by pain or sacrifice. In short, God must be placated and left alone, least he punish the person with death and damnation."

Loving parents also influence the God Concept :

When generalized to the God Concept, the childhood magic of the omnipotent and omniscient parent survives. The person can be safe and secure within the protection of the parent surrogate. Like the parent who meets the demands of the infant, God is always there when needed." (My emphasis)

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During the God Experience, as repression lifts, the temporal lobe transient accomplishes an unlocking and "(t)he adult experiences the old sense of the infant self to which he or she has not had access for decades." Images and sensations which originated during one's earlier beginning are then accessible into consciousness. Here he almost says it. He mentions repression - it is always trauma which is repressed, so why the continued hesitancy in detailing exactly how the infant/parental relationship influence the God Experience?

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The experience re-felt at that time due to the God or mystical experience "is the relationship between the child and the parent." The infantile ego is shaped and determined by the conclusions which the infant has about himself based on his dealings with his parents, especially his mother. Thus one's personality is determined by "parental behavior" towards the infant. He tantalizingly approaches the piece d'resistence, and once again succeeds in resisting a discussion of the subject.

Persinger writes that there is an obsession with themes of origins in those who have the God Experience. As mentioned, he uses the word, "nascence." Descriptive words of the experiencer, are those a child might use, are common - e.g., "being born again." He asks the important questions of why the experiencer wants to know who he is and where he is going, but does not hazard out a possible answer.

Is the mystic's birth, traumatic or less so, part of the remembering? No opinion is given. Does the obsession of the God Experiencer with themes of "nascence" refer to birth or do only other later factors which contribute to the origins of the personality?

Referring to the developing child's "vague feelings of diffuse origins" Persinger writes:
"Normally, these experiences are locked away. As the person matures, other parts of the brain become involved and the role of the temporal lobe shifts to other functions. The old memories are forgotten. But they are there, ready to be released by the appropriate key. That key is the temporal lobe transient. When it occurs, the images and protosensations long locked within the old contexts of the temporal lobe are released. The adult experiences the old sense of the infant self to which he or she has not had access for decades."

At times, Dr. Persinger writes quite poetically. For example,

". . . (T)hese old themes are felt within the contexts of the adult perception. Infinity is not the boundary of the crib, but the end of the universe. Eternity is not the few seconds to the next suckle of warm milk, but the extent of all adult time."

Does the author believe that negative God Experiences are from specific early memories of early parental abuse or from more generalized early unhappy memories?

The introjected parent may combine with the sense of self in the formation of our God Concept:

"Since the sense of self and of time and space are dominant within the same functional networks that contain old parental images and their symbolic extensions, intermingling of the God Concept and the sense of self is not surprising. The two are expected to be so intricately interrelated that one evokes the manifestation of the other. . . . When thought sequences are generated about the diminutive self, alone in a terrifying infinity of eternal death, the sense of God emerges, shaped by the patterns of parental images."

Our image of God as either loving or vindicative and unfeeling depends on our relationship with our parents. Persinger writes,

"Depressed, forlorn, and crying, psychologically he was in the condition of the helpless infant. The God Experience, the propensity for which had been laid down since infancy, happened. It was similar to so many other episodes reported by the religious. The impact influenced the rest of his life."

"The solution is hidden within the lost images, buried within the mechanisms of adult pre-logic that dominate every human being during the first few years of life. They are the memories for which we now have amnesia. They are the memories from which the God Experience is synthesized during the TLTs, when portions of the subcortex and the synaptic matrices of infancy are momentarily merged once again. It is here that the key to the immunopotential of human survival is buried."

In the aforementioned article, Dr. Persinger writes that the material released as a result of the temporal lobe micro-seizures are related to the person's learning history. This would mean that access would be to very early memories of parental images and perhaps even memories from around birth and later memories from early childhood.

The infantile memories would become a part of the experiencer's mystical experience. He believes that the material from later memories before four or five years of age would comprise the contents of past lives and other such transpersonal memories.

As in the book, in this article, he does not state the origins of the particular emotional content of the material which is re-lived.

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In spite of this shortcoming, Dr. Persinger's Neuropsychological bases of God Beliefs, is the best book I have read on the problem of mysticism, or as he calls the phenomenon, the God Experience.

It is recommended reading.


Also, on this website, read:

Neuro-Electromagnetic Fields, Osama bin Laden, and the Regressive Psychotherapies

Book Review - Neuropsychology of the Bases of God Experiences by Michael A. Persinger

On the Origins of the Fear of Dying in the Writings of Michael A. Persinger and Others

Return to the Primal Page's Birth Trauma Index