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God and the Brain
Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 29 October 2002
Host: Over the past few years, we've learned that our
brains are hardwired for everything from recognizing faces to
craving fatty foods. So should it be any surprise that they're
also hardwired for religious experiences? Science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer is here to show us the way ...
Robert J. Sawyer: If God is dead, he's buried in Sudbury,
For about a decade now, Michael Persinger, a researcher at
Laurentian University there, has been inducing in volunteers the
experience of being in the presence of a mystical "other." He
does it by exposing their brains to low levels of electromagnetic
radiation nothing more powerful than what you'd get by
putting your head next to a computer monitor.
People wearing Persinger's souped-up motorcycle helmet claim to
sense the presence of someone else with them inside his
soundproof test chamber. The kind of being sensed depended on the
predispositions of the individual: secular folk often think it's
an alien; religious people frequently describe it as an angel or
the Virgin Mary.
Persinger believes the same effect can be triggered by natural
electric discharges, such as those from rocks under stress,
accounting for the religious visitations that date back to the
dawn of time.
Persinger's work has been attracting media attention for years;
there's a pretty good piece about it in the current issue of
Saturday Night. But although Persinger was the pioneer
of this sort of research, other have followed in his footsteps.
Sound Effect: Monks chanting
A few years ago, two researchers at Penn did brain scans of eight
Tibetan Buddhist monks who were meditating. Naturally, the monks
showed increased activity in the areas of the brain associated
with concentration. But they also show decreased activity in the
brain's parietal lobe.
Now, what's significant about a part of the brain slacking off?
Well, the left-hemisphere component of the parietal lobe helps
define your body image, while the right-hemisphere part helps
orient you in three-dimensional space. Collectively, therefore,
they define the boundary between where your body ends and things
outside it begin. With the parietal lobe taking a coffee break,
the natural feeling is exactly what monks report: a loss of the
sense of self, and a feeling of being at one with the universe.
And what about the soul that part of us that's separate
from the body? The idea of the soul didn't come from nowhere.
Rather, for centuries, people have reported out-of-body
experiences. Epileptics are particularly prone to them, but
they're also common among those close to death, which is
presumably what gave rise to the notion that the soul lives on
after the body dies. A Dutch study last year  showed that 12
percent of cardiac patients who were resuscitated from clinical
death had out-of-body experiences, presumably induced by a lack
Sound Effect: Electrical zaps
Now a Swiss scientist has found a way to safely induce the
feeling that the soul has left the body. A little zap to the
right hemisphere's angular gyrus is all it takes. With his test
subject, an epileptic woman, this doctor has had a 100% success
rate in giving her out-of-body experiences.
Religious visitations explained away in Sudbury. Researchers in
Pennsylvania showing how the brain produces the feeling of being
at one with the universe. And a Swiss scientist reliably
replicating the out-of-body experience.
It all adds up to a comprehensive, and decidedly unmystical,
explanation for the phenomena at the hearts of most religions.
For centuries we've been told that God created Man in his own
image. But, just maybe, as these breakthroughs in neuroscience
are suggesting, it's really that Man's mind has been creating
God's image all along.
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
More Good Reading
Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer
Rob's novel Hybrids, which deals with God and the Brain
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