Book Review - Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D. Praeger Publishers, NY, NY, 1987, $65.00, pps. 164

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

These people . . . (who have God Experiences ). . are not "weirdos"
or diagnosed abnormals. They are average people who interact in
everyday ways with other people. They cope with their jobs,
talk to their children, and carry on complex conversations.
Some of them are the leaders of the scientific
and artistic worlds."

--Dr. Michael A. Persinger

The title of this book brings up the issue of whether it belongs in a website devoted to the regressive psychotherapies. I believe it does belong because both mysticism and the regressive psychotherapies use material from one's very earliest beginnings as the play dough for their processes.

I do not believe that the author has sufficiently emphasized the distinction between and the significance of nurturant memories versus traumatic memories of infancy and very early childhood. Dr. Persinger does, however, stress the crucial importance of the infant's interaction with its parents as the source of material experienced during the God Experience.

How the mother and father relate to the child is considered of utmost importance as to the specific content of future God Experiences. Indeed, the author returns many times to the theme that "infantile memories of parental images (perhaps even perinatal representations proprioception), and . . . images from before four to five years of age," are the building materials from which is formed and which becomes the bases of such mystical experiences. [The quotation above is from Persinger's article, Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis, (1983)].

Michael A. Persinger is a Canadian neuro-psychologist who has written about and extensively researched the effects of electro-magnetic stimulation of the human brain. In his book, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs, he has hypothesized that the personal religious experience with God is a result of electro-magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobes of the brain caused by micro-seizures, oftentimes the results of overwhelming physiological stress and anxiety.

He writes in the Preface of his book that God Experiences are "tempered by the person's learning history" but emphasizes that the memories themselves are not stored in the temporal lobe. That part of the brain only contains the key which unlocks the stored sensory inputs from other parts of the brain from whence is drawn long suppressed and repressed memories of the mystic's earliest past.

In his book, which is written from a behavorial viewpoint, he often reminds us that the ultimate origins of the content of the God Experience is from the early infant/parental relationship. Unfortunately, we are only tantalized with this bit of information since he does not go into details or give examples of exactly what it is in the relationship between the parent(s) and the infant which might determine the content of the God Experience. [See on this website, Early Life Events and Their Influence On Mysticism In the Writings of Michael Persinger .]

Dr. Persinger writes that the scientific study of subjects considered sacred is not a popular undertaking. Over the years many of our most sacrosanct beliefs have been overturned. For example,
  • The earth is no longer believed to be the center of the universe and
  • The belief in a biblical based special creation has been successfully challenged.
  • The question of humankind's rationality and whether we possess free will has been a more recent and upsettling query.
The author contends that if our beliefs that the God Experiences come from a God who truly exists, we need not be concerned, as our beliefs will stand the test of scientific inquiry.

This book delves into the two types of God Belief: The God Experience and the God Concept. Both the concept of God and the mystical personal experience of God are deeply influenced by our early upbringing. Our concepts of the attributes of God are determined by how we viewed our parents. As infants we bestowed God-like characteristics on them - I believe, particularly our mother. She was omnipotent and omniscient. If she was absent or cruel then these same attributes are ones we associate with God. This pairing of God equals Mother or God equals Father is unconscious and colors to a great extent our concept of the deity.

Persinger writes that the evolution of the brain allowed the temporal lobe to develop features which enable us to have the God Experience. With its adjacent organs, the hippocamus and amygdala, the temporal lobe became the key which when acted upon by our feelings of extreme personal anxiety allows these parts of the brain to open stored memories from our earliest existence. These elements are used to symbolically construct the very personal and meaningful episodes of closeness or oneness with God.

As we developed more thinking and reflecting power due to an ever increasing size of our cortex, we became able to contemplate our own upcoming death. The temporal lobe with its adjacent structures allowed us to have spiritual experiences which in turn reduced this death anxiety.

The medical condition of temporal lobe epilepsy allows researchers the convenience of having a living laboratory to study the actions of the temporal lobe in producing the God Experience. These epileptics usually have gross abnormalities or lesions of the temporal lobe. The God Experience, however, can be also be the result of much milder seizures, to which all of us, to some degree, are susceptible.

Temporal lobe psychotics can have daily episodes of being one with God. If the psychosis is due to a temporal lobe lesion, its removal eliminates the God Experiences and accompanying mystical preoccupations.

Even in cases of non-psychotics with temporal lobe lesions, but with grand mal or petit mal seizures, neurosurgery may effectively remove the seizures but at the same time will also remove their God Experiences. Transient micro-seizures (with absent gross pathologies) are more common in the episodic God Experiences of the more normal person. In all classes of temporal lobe involvement these low-grade seizures can trigger very meaningful and profound experiences. All feel that they have been blessed with a personal visit or communication from God or other spiritual beings.
[See Mark Salzman's literary novel, Lying Awake, about a nun's spiritual experiences due to temporal lobe pathology.]

The God Experience can and does change lives. New understandings arise and priorities change as new beliefs and behaviors immediately become accepted as real. A drug addict can become instantly transformed into a spirit-filled proselytizing born-again Christian. Their mood becomes heightened. After having a God Experience, a person may feel that he has been chosen, inspired and energized by the Almighty to do important things in His name (e.g., Joan of Arc).

Dr. Persinger writes: "The power of the God Experience shames any known therapy. With a single burst in the temporal lobe, people find structure and meaning in seconds. With it comes the personal conviction of truth and the sense of self-selection." (e.g., Billy Graham).

Among the many conditions that promote a God Experience are physiological stress and nervous tension. "The most profound God Experiences," Persinger writes, "occur after the sudden loss (death) of a close loved one." He writes that the profundity of the experience is in proportion to the degree of the severity of the loss or of the degree of stress. Seriously disabling accidents and injuries (e.g., St. Ignatius Loyola), privations and financial losses can precipitate a more deeply moving experience.

Ingesting certain drugs can elicit the God Experience. Among the most potent are LSD, psilocybin (sacred mushrooms of the Aztecs), and ibogaine. Those who have studied these entheogens or psychedelics report that their effects cannot be distinguished from the spontaneous God Experience. (The word,"entheogen" means "God created within us.")

Church hymns and other feelingful music can facilitate one's access to the mystical experience. Body movements which are a part of ritual dancing can also be helpful as can the rhythmic sounds of drumming.

Starvation and sensory isolation can be routes to the God Experience. Other triggers may "include birth traumas, mechanical damage (concussions) during development, degenerative diseases, hormonal fluctuations, and the development of scleroses." [The quotation is from Persinger's article, Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis, (1983)].

Certain types, after having a mystical experience, become convinced that what they have experienced was real and true. They are certain that God, Christ, Mohammed, or whomever, personally appeared to them. No matter how much evidence is presented to them that the experience can be duplicated in a laboratory, they persist in their conviction that what they experienced was genuine. They don't seem to be bothered by the obvious contradiction that dogmas revealed by "God" to others are not in agreement with their revelations. It is of no concern to them that others, who were similarly touched by the Divine, came to entirely different theological truths and convictions. These mystics insist that their philosophical position is the correct one and that they really had a visitation from God or a spiritual entity.

Thus, personal experience becomes, for these mystics, the "be all" and "end all" of their reality. They always insist that their world-view is the correct one - that their revelations are/were unique - unlike the God Experience revelations of others - which were not real.

These who are susceptible to such experiences are the types who become the founders of new religions and may spend a lifetime codifying what they believe is a new divinely inspired philosophical or religious truth. Persinger believes that this type of thinking is not related to intelligence or education.

Other chapters of the book deal with the semantics of anxiety and anxiety reduction, techniques for integrating religious behaviors and characteristics of the religious personality

In his final chapter, Dr. Persinger writes how the God Experience has potential for both good and evil. In examining the possibility of harnessing the power of the God Experience for the health of mankind, he writes:

"There have been cases where people walked when told by priests, when lymphomas shrank when the physician gave the trusting person only sugar water. There have been instances where myelin re-eroded when the minister was found to be a charlatan. There are episodes when the cancer that was thought to be cured swelled after the antidote was found to be a sham. The power may be within the individual. But the kindling source resides outside, in the behavior of someone else. The God belief is the greatest parental power of them all. We can isolate and optimize this behavioral operation."

"The answer lies within those first four years of hippocampus memory before the transformation to adult thinking. The solution is hidden within the lost images, buried within the mechanisms of adult pre-logic that dominate every human being during the first few years of life. They are the memories for which we now have amnesia. They are the memories from which the God Experience is synthesized during the temporal lobe transients, when portions of the subcortex and the synaptic matrices of infancy are momentarily merged once again. It is here that the key to the immunopotential of human survival is buried."

In that chapter, the author displays a prescient understanding of how fundamentalist religious extremists could be influenced to commit acts of terrorism.

Those who are interested in Persinger's theory of how the God Experience could be technically enhanced and used to further terrorism, may read on the internet the last portion of his article which deals with this subject: Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis

Michael A. Persinger is a professor of psychology and head of the Neuroscience Research Group at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. His main subject of interest is the study of the effects of applying small amounts of electro-magnetic stimulation to the temporal lobe.

Also, on this website, see:

Neuro-Electromagnetic Fields, Osama bin Laden, and the Regressive Psychotherapies

Parents, The Image of God, and Mysticism: Reflections On Some Writings of Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D.

On the Origins of the Fear of Dying in the Writings of Michael A. Persinger and Others

For other articles on this subject, see on this website, The Psychology of Mysticism

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