Are our brains to blame when we 'see' ghosts and have religious visions?
Today, researchers at Hadassah University Hospital, Jerusalem, said that while treating a 46-year-old man for temporal lobe epilepsy, the patient had a spontaneous religious experience in which he claimed to see and converse with God.
This is the first time ever that scientists have been able to study a patient in the throes of a 'vision' who also happened to be hooked up to an EEG machine. The study's authors Shahar Arzy and Roey Schurr concluded that the man suffered from 'grandiose religious delusion of revelation and missionary zeal in the context of post-ictal psychosis (PIP).' Which in layman's terms is 'a form of psychotic episode that can occur after epileptic seizures,' according to Discovery Magazine, an online neurological journal.
In a study back in the early 90s, scientists found that people with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy might be more open to religious concepts. Clinical trials on patients with the condition have even found they were more responsive to religious words than words related to sex.
The spirits lurking in your inner cortex
At the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, researchers wanted to look into the neuroscience behind the sense of spiritual 'presence' that some people think comes from the divine and supernatural and see if it could be replicated.
Their research showed that the 'feeling of a presence' can come from an alteration of sensorimotor brain signals, which are involved in generating self-awareness by fusing information from our movements and our body in space.
In their experiment, the EPFL team messed with the sensorimotor input of participants in such a way that their brains no longer identified such signals as belonging to their own body, but instead interpreted them as those of someone else.
The study's head honcho, Professor Olaf Blanke said, "When the system malfunctions because of disease - or, in this case, because of a robot - it can sometimes create a second representation of one's own body, which is no longer perceived as 'me' but as someone else, a 'presence'."
When you're haunted by your own brain
Whilst of course any religious experience is subjective (and there are many connections with a higher power you'd hardly want a scientist with clipboard's opinion on), some 'supernatural' experiences can be visceral and frightening.
Many victims of sleep paralysis (a state when you're awake but the bit of your brain that stops you acting out your dreams keeps you frozen) report hallucinations and a feeling of someone pressing down on their chest. Some report being abducted by aliens, seeing angels, numbness and floating.
In an episode of the radio show This American Life, we hear an account from a Medical Journal in 1921 that sounds creepily like the script of 'The Others.'
A patient, Mrs. H., records paranormal activity occurring in her house. She says: "Some nights, after I've been in bed for a while, I've felt as if the bed clothes were jerked off me. I've also felt as if I'd been struck on the shoulder. One night I woke up and saw, sitting on the foot of my bed, a man and a woman. The woman was young, dark and slight and wore a large picture hat. I was paralysed and could not move."
Her kids reported the same weirdness. Mrs. H. added, "Sometimes as I walk along the hall, I feel as if someone was following me, going to touch me. You cannot understand it if you've not experienced it. But it's real. As I was dressing for breakfast one morning, B., who is four years old, came to my room and asked me why I'd called him. I told him I'd not called him, that I'd not been in his room. With big and startled eyes he said, 'Who was it, then, that called me? Who made that pounding noise?'"
Finally, they stumble across an explanation. The fire in the house is leaking large amounts of carbon monoxide into the building and the whole family are being quietly poisoned.
Leading consulting toxicologist Albert Donnay has an explanation: carbon monoxide. He says, "Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause all manner of hallucinations - audio, visual, [people] feeling strange things on their skin when there was nothing there. People often report that they hear noises in their ears, bells ringing, rushing sounds," - all experiences compatible with having a poisoned brain.
Something to think about next time you take a gas lamp to bed.