Seeing God in the Third Millennium


How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies

There are many carefully documented accounts in the medical literature of intense, life-altering religious experience in epileptic seizures. Hallucinations of overwhelming intensity, sometimes accompanied by a sense of bliss and a strong feeling of the numinous, can occur especially with the so-called “ecstatic” seizures that may occur in temporal lobe epilepsy. Though such seizures may be brief, they can lead to a fundamental reorientation, a metanoia, in one’s life. Fyodor Dostoevsky was prone to such seizures and described many of them, including this:

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.

A century later, Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard published a detailed report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry of a bus conductor who had a sudden feeling of elation while collecting fares. They wrote:

He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss. He felt he was literally in Heaven. He collected the fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven. … He remained in this state of exaltation, hearing divine and angelic voices, for two days. Afterwards he was able to recall these experiences and he continued to believe in their validity. [Three years later] following three seizures on three successive days, he became elated again. He stated that his mind had “cleared.” … During this episode he lost his faith.

He now no longer believed in heaven and hell, in an afterlife, or in the divinity of Christ. This second conversion — to atheism — carried the same excitement and revelatory quality as the original religious conversion.

More recently, Orrin Devinsky and his colleagues have been able to make video EEG recordings in patients who are having such seizures, and have observed an exact synchronization of the epiphany with a spike in epileptic activity in the temporal lobes (more commonly the right temporal lobe).

Written By: Oliver Sacks
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  1. I don’t understand why people want God to exist thinking at the same time that he is the one that created the people they cannot stand. Not to mention, he loves them as well. Shouldn’t they at least feel a little bit of repulsion towards their own fantasy knowing that?!

    If religious people want me to believe that god exists, then I want them to believe that the end of the world will indeed happen as predicted by religion. On December 22, 2012, they should wake up in the morning and simply believe that they died on December 21, 2012 without any awareness of their death, and instantaneously migrated to a parallel universe, which is a replica of the one they are in right now. They want people to think that their beliefs hold water, right?

    Somebody should’ve warned these psychopathic genocidal maniacs not to present their fantasies as the reality and force them on other people because they can become victims of they own cruelty as well.

  2. Kearth,
    ” Shouldn’t they at least feel a little bit of repulsion towards their own fantasy knowing that?!” 

    Self loathing or repulsion is a self defeating and worthless exercise.

  3. Pauly:

    “…Self loathing or repulsion is a self defeating and worthless exercise.”

    You’re right….it would like loathing yourself for being a dangerous destructive parasitic organism.

  4. Pauly- 
    ……Self loathing or repulsion is a self defeating and worthless exercise.

    Yep, but it’s kept the Vatican in wine for a good few years!

    As to the OP, isn’t this pretty much what’s been said about Mohammed’s ‘visits’ from Jibril? “’twas all in thine head, Mo”. There’s something sadly ironic about billions of people worshipping a deity dreamt up in a short-circuiting brain; more so, I think, than worshipping a deity made up by somebody who knew he was lying.

  5. I think there is an element of the “herd instinct” in this.  With excessively large populations which need to move around to fresh “pastures” to seek new resources, when their present resource base is nearing exhaustion, (locusts  shoaling fish, crusading armies etc.)  moving to new ground / ocean, is more important than which direction is taken.

    In these circumstances leaders only need a confident determination to lead, not a knowledge of the destination.  There is therefore, a class of leader who confidently leads, not because it knows where it is going, but because it is too stupid to know it is lost!

    Brain malfunctions could easily provide this sort of confident stupidity!

  6. Dr Cicoria according to this article says that he saw a woman come over to his body and give him CPR. So did a woman give him CPR (presumably), but how can Dr Cicoria prove that he actually saw it rather than imagine it? This is the crux of the matter – has a patient ever seen anything that he could not have imagined? If that could be proved then that’s a game changer in favour of the religious/woo-meisters.

    I wonder if pre-1900 man ever had flying dreams and if so how accurate might they have been. We now know what the earth looks like from a bird’s eye perspective, but they wouldn’t have then.

  7. In my late teens,
    I actually experienced these feelings of bliss myself maybe once or twice a
    year. However they only lasted a few minutes usually as I was drifting of to
    sleep and were then followed by an intense migraine. I still remember
    that I could sense it coming on by a particular ‘smell’ even though I can’t
    describe what that smell was…just knew what was coming and then a sudden
    racing of my mind and senses. As I wasn’t raised in religious family, I was
    actually more freaked by these episodes than anything. In my 20’s they seem to
    have disappeared, however I then subsequently had two grand mal seizures in my
    early 30’s which on one occasion landed me in hospital. In both of these cases
    I was asleep at the time and didn’t realise until I woke up!. Over the past
    15-20 years thankfully I haven’t had a re-occurrence. This has re-enforced for me
    (apart from logic and readings) that the brain in its capacity to interpret experiences
    can create them just as easily.
    BTW I have
    have been a great admirer of Oliver Sacks books since I first read “The
    man who mistook his wife for a hat” – highly recommended

  8. I read once about an epileptic gran mal seizure which caused hallucinations:

    “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
    5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
    “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”  Acts 9:3-6.

    From the article:

    “He was convinced that
    the entire episode — being struck by lightning, having a transcendent vision,
    then being resuscitated and gifted so that he could bring music to the world,
    was part of a divine plan.


    Cicoria’s reasonable
    and (one might say) scientific attitude to his own spiritual conversion”

    So god is now teaching people how to play the piano, and the author of this article thinks that is “reasonable and . . . scientific” 

    Good grief.

  9. If religious people want me to believe that god exists, then I want them to believe that the end of the world will indeed happen as predicted by religion. On December 22, 2012…

    Quick one…which religion predicted the end of the world on December 22, 2012?

  10. I thought it was the 21st. Does this give me one more day? You’re disrupting my schedule. I will have to adjust my provisions for the bunker.

  11. I was just listening to NPR about this. They report that the largest percentage of people who believe this is China! 20%! Hard to imagine.

  12. The Mayan’s long calender just came to an end…in the same way our’s will run out on the 31st December, but no one is suggesting the end of the world will happen then. If the Mayan’s hadn’t have went the way of the dinosaurs, they would’ve just knocked out another one.

    It’s the mental cases putting their woo wooist spin in the fact.

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