[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

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, Ontario.

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 [2001] showed that 12 percent of cardiac patients who were resuscitated from clinical death had out-of-body experiences, presumably induced by a lack of oxygen.

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

My Very Occasional Newsletter

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