Sacred Diseases

Jill Bolte Taylor found enlightenment when she suffered a massive stroke that shut down the left hemisphere of her brain, which controls analytical thinking and speech.  All interior chatter ceased, and she lost any sense of bodily separation from her surroundings.  As a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, Taylor understood better than most what had happened to her.   Yet far from being devastated by the stroke, she later said she felt “like a genie liberated from its bottle.”  

Never very religious, Taylor did not suddenly get religion, at least not in any conventional sense.  As she put it, “Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain.” Yet she believes she has experienced a profound spiritual awakening.  Whereas before her stroke she had published research papers based on experiments with lab rats, she now bills herself as the Singing Scientist and has gone on the road as a motivational speaker.  Not surprisingly, some of her former Harvard colleagues are a bit puzzled by her transformation.  Some New Age types are also puzzled, wondering whether she is truly enlightened or is merely brain-damaged.

Abnormal brain function is known to produce effects that are nearly indistinguishable from certain mystical states.  Hippocrates noted long ago that epilepsy was commonly referred to as the “sacred disease” because of the ecstatic visions sometimes experienced during seizures, although he doubted they had been inspired by the gods. Researchers in more recent times have documented that temporal lobe epilepsy produces “symptoms of religiosity,” as one study described them.  There has been much speculation that St. Paul’s famous conversion experience on the road to Damascus was the result of an epileptic seizure.  St. Theresa of Avila had visions accompanied by blinding headaches and loss of consciousness, which have variously been attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy or hysteria.  George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, left behind written accounts of hallucinatory episodes that strongly suggest he may have suffered from schizophrenia.

William James, the pioneering American psychologist, was a notable dissenter from the dominant view in medical circles that mystical states were at best a form of self-induced delirium, if not symptomatic of serious mental aberration.  Himself an occasional dabbler in nitrous oxide and other mind-altering drugs, James believed religious experience was worthy of serious scientific study, and did so in his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1901.  For James, mystical states were not pathological but a “special type of consciousness” that existed alongside our everyday perception of reality. 

In recent years, neuroscientists have begun to use brain imaging technologies to track neurological activity when subjects enter deep meditative states.  Some investigators have concluded that the brain is hard-wired with neural pathways to God, while others have concluded on the basis of similar evidence that the subjective experience of God is nothing more than odd discharges of the brain.  Of course, one might just as well assert that all sensory experience is nothing more than discharges of the brain, since much of what passes for reality can be reproduced by electrically stimulating certain regions of the brain.  If such were the case, we might all be living in a shared make-believe world while our inert bodies float in tanks, as in The Matrix film.   Or, as Jill Bolte Taylor might say, our entire understanding of the world might be nothing more than a story the left brain tells the right brain.

Leslie Kaufman, “A Superhighway to Bliss,” New York Times (May 25, 2008)
Kenneth Dewhurst and A.W. Beard, “Sudden Religious Conversions in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy," Classics in Epilepsy and Behavior: 1970 
Hippocrates, “On the Sacred Disease”

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