What happens when scientists hook a man up to a brain wave monitor while he is in a religious ecstasy? This is what researchers unintentionally did in a Jerusalem facility, resulting in a study whose results could represent empirical proof that religion is only a form of mental disorder. A deeper look at the experiment reveals something entirely different about the origins of prophecy.
Researchers at Hadassah University Hospital on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus had a unique look into the workings of the human brain when they attached an electroencephalogram (EEG) to a patient while he was having an epileptic seizure. The episode was particularly compelling since, typical of many temporal lobe seizures, it contained a powerful religious element.
The findings were published by Doctors Shahar Arzy and Roey Schurr last week in the neurologic journal Epilepsy and Behavior. An article in Times of Israel noted that this was “the first time the moment has been captured on brain-monitoring equipment and may prove a vital step towards deeper understanding of the link to epilepsy.”
The researchers wrote:
While lying in bed, the patient abruptly ‘froze’ and stared at the ceiling for several minutes, stating later that he felt that God was approaching him. He then started chanting prayers quietly, looked for his kippa and put it on his head, chanting the prayers more excessively.
Then, abruptly, he yelled, ‘And you are Adonai (name of the Hebrew God) the Lord!’, stating later that God had revealed himself to him, ordering him to bring redemption to the people of Israel.
The patient then stood up, detached the EEG electrodes from his skin, and went around the department trying to convince people to follow him, stating that ‘God has sent me to you.’ When further questioned, he said that he does not have a concrete plan, but he is sure that God is going to instruct him what he and his followers should do on their way to redemption.
They noted that the patient was Jewish but not observant.
The study concluded that the man suffered from “grandiose religious delusion of revelation and missionary zeal in the context of post-ictal psychosis (PIP).” PIP is a post-epileptic seizure resulting in altered state of consciousness, during which the brain recovers from the effects of the seizure.
The connection between epileptic seizures and religious experiences is clear. Religious episodes occur during PIP in 1.3 percent of all epilepsy patients and 2.2 percent of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) patients.
Studies into the phenomenon by Vilayanur S. Ramachandra from the University of California – San Diego reinforced the connection between religious ecstasy and TLE. Ramachandra studied the galvanic skin response, linked to the temporal lobes of the brain, of TLE patients while being shown religious symbols. He found they had a much stronger physical response when shown religious icons than non-TLE subjects.
The studies have led some to conclude that religious visions and experiences are simply the result of misfiring nerve synapses.
Meir Simcha Panzer, a student of brain science with a degree in philosophy from Brandeis University and several years of experience studying Jewish texts, disagrees with this attempt at “explaining away prophecy”.
“It is typical of materialist reductionism, which tries to define everything in terms of matter,” Panzer told Breaking Israel News. “Today, it is popular to describes consciousness as a network of physical processes.
“The materialists try to discount the religious experience as just a matrix of hormones and neurons firing, shifting around molecules,” he explained, adding, “This is clearly inaccurate.”
However, it is also wrong to consider prophecy from a purely spiritual approach, he said. “The religious explanations can sometimes try to divorce themselves from physicality,” he said. “God created us as physical beings. The physical world is part of the religious experience.
“It also shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who goes through a powerful spiritual experience goes through a physical process as well, in the same way that a person who goes through a powerful emotional experience has physical manifestations.”
Panzer explained that prophecy is a multi-faceted experience, including spiritual, intellectual, and even physical elements which would either cause, or be caused by, neurological and physical changes. He connected this to Jewish concepts of prophecy, citing Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the code of law compiled by the major 12th century Spanish rabbi.
“If you study the laws pertaining to prophets in the Mishneh Torah, you see that prophecy is not a simply a matter of knowledge, or even foreknowledge. People can have the experience, even foretell the future, and still not be prophets,” Panzer said, referring to TLE patients.
Essentially, what this means is that it is wrong to discount the visions or experiences of those in epileptic seizures, he concluded. While they are not considered actual prophecy, it doesn’t mean that these moments of deep connection to the Divine are not authentic.