"Why does

anything 

feel real? It

is because

your brain 

creates a 

model of 

what feels 

real." 


 

 

Neurology of the Weird
Brain mechanisms and anomalous experiences
 Based on a talk by Dr. Barry Beyerstein, reported by Jeanine DeNoma 

Dr. Beyerstein received his Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. He is chairman of the B.C. Skeptics and is a fellow and member of the Executive Council of CSICOP. He is on the editorial boards of Skeptical Inquirer and a new journal, Reviews of Anomalous and Alternative Medicine. He is also on the advisory resource panel of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

Individuals who profess a belief in the paranormal often say they do so because they have had a compelling personal encounter with another world or an entity from another world. Heavenly beings such as angels or aliens, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and mystical revelations are all commonly promoted as evidence of "worlds" beyond our own. Dr. Barry Beyerstein, speaking to Oregonians for Rationality on May 16 in Eugene, discussed how neurobiology is shining new light on our understanding of these age-old experiences.

     Transcendent hallucinations are probably more common then generally realized, said Beyerstein. While they may be a sign of pathology, they are not uncommon in ordinary, healthy individuals, many of whom imbue their experience with supernatural or religious meaning. Beyerstein defined transcendence as "a sudden, usually unexpected, alteration of consciousness so intense as to be overwhelming. It is fundamentally different, and perceived to be so, from ordinary consciousness."

     Transcendent experiences are often accompanied by feelings of awe, contentment and wonderment that last long after the experience has faded. Such an experience can fundamentally change the way the individual views reality and interprets the world around them.

     When asked to describe their transcendent experience, individuals often reply that it must be felt and can not possibly be described by words. They report an intensely emotional, immensely meaningful experience unlike anything they have felt in everyday reality. When asked if it might have been a dream, they emphatically deny that possibility. It was much too real to be a dream, they say. They commonly describe it as "more real than real."

     The profoundness of these experiences often leads people to believe they have experienced a "higher" or "deeper" reality, something deeply religious or supernatural. It may seem to have been telling them something immensely important about the meaning of life or the purpose of their own life; it may seem a clear glimpse of something that can only be hazily understood through everyday experience. The clarity and compellingness of the experience leaves people feeling the experience was truly meaningful and that what was revealed is something they can trust.

     The emotions associated with transcendent experiences run the continuum from intense joy to abject terror, feelings of having had a glimpse of heaven or the underworld of Hades. Individuals having joyful experiences often come away from the experience feeling they are in some way special, that they have been chosen to receive this message for a purpose; terrifying experiences are often interpreted as a wake-up call to change one's ways.

     The actual experience may last for a few seconds to a few minutes and occasionally longer. People report that during that time they felt "melded with the all," that they were no longer encumbered with a physical existence, that they were nowhere or everywhere at once. Some describe, not leaving their body, but having their body taken over by some other entity or consciousness which compelled them to think, feel and do things, sometimes against their will.

     Reports of transcendent experiences have appeared throughout all ages, said Beyerstein. If we look back through historical documents we find the raw experiences sound very similar, although they may have been described with different words and interpreted differently depending upon the time, culture and background of the individual. Many historical figures as diverse as Mohammed, Saint Paul, Joan of Arc, Newton, Mozart, Hitler, Stalin, Charles Manson and Jimmy Carter have all reported such experiences. What each has gone on to do as a result of their experience has, of course, varied.

Explanations

     At one extreme these experiences are interpreted as mystical or religious. Many ancient and modern religious systems and some "New Age" cults teach techniques to achieve transcendence. It has been called nirvana, higher consciousness, or peak experience and described variously as a oneness with the universe, enlightenment, and the peace that passes all understanding. Our own culture is predisposed to accept transcendent experiences as mystical or religious realities. At another extreme, said Beyerstein, traditional psychology and clinical psychiatry interpret transcendent experiences as meaningless or as signs of psychopathology, giving them such pejorative labels as depersonalization, derealization and loss of ego boundaries.

     Beyerstein comes down between these two extremes. He believes transcendent experiences have a naturalistic explanation; that in healthy individuals they are the result of normal physiological and psychological processes operating in the brain under unusual circumstances. The naturalistic approach to explaining how and why such experiences occur is the most interesting from the point of view of the skeptic, and it has more credibility than mystical explanations, he said.

     Beyerstein believes that by putting aside all the metaphysical, mystical and religious connotations and all the diagnostic and pathological categories and studying the raw experience we can learn a lot about how the human brain works. The field of study which takes this approach is known as "anomalistic psychology." It uses data from cognitive psychology, social psychology, neurobiology and, in some cases, clinical psychology to generate nonmystical, naturalistic, testable hypotheses for anomalistic experiences.

     "You can accept the subjective reality [of transcendent experiences], without going the extra step and accepting that it was real outside of the internal theater of the mind," said Beyerstein.

     Naturalistic explanations are based on the working assumption that there is no dualistic mind-body separation; that the mind and consciousness are constrained to the physical structure and functioning of our brain. Evidence supporting this includes:

     1) If we damage our brain, we damage our "mind."

     2) As animals' brains have evolved in increasing complexity, their behavior has correspondingly increased in complexity.

     3) As an individual's brain matures, his behavior alters.

     4) Psychopharmacological drugs have measurable and predictable effects on the brain and behavior.

     New tools and technologies available to study the brain are providing researchers with new data supporting these naturalistic hypotheses. Beyerstein went on to elaborate on some of the evidence for a physiological basis for anomalistic experiences.

Achieving Transcendence

     Transcendent experiences may be achieved through behavioral, psychological, chemical and pathological means, said Beyerstein. Transcendent states can be triggered by over or under stimulation in the brain. The CIA, and later, researchers at the University of Michigan, developed water floatation systems to obtain transcendent-like experiences through sensory deprivation. The mystical literature describes systems using physical manipulations such as fasting, meditation, and breathing exercises to obtain altered states of consciousness.

     Religious and mystical disciplines often use rhythmic drumming, swaying, heavy repetitive music and chanting to obtain transcendent states that believers will interpret as a confirmation of the spiritual message being taught. The famous evangelist, John Wesley included these techniques in his manuals on how to run a revival meeting. Similar techniques are even used at political rallies.

     The Nazi's raised these manipulation to a high science with chanting, music, and psychological manipulations of fear and rhetoric at their rallies. British psychologist William Sargant describes Nazi rallies in his book Battle for the Mind. He tells how he was thoroughly disgusted by the Nazi message, but was fascinated with how the message was delivered by leaders and swallowed wholesale by otherwise intelligent people. He understood how such manipulations worked. He attended the Nazi rallies, trying to be an external observer, only to find them so overwhelming he could hardly avoid being drawn in. The experience was so compelling, he said afterwards, that he could understand how Hitler was so successful.

     Many hallucinogens, both plant substances and laboratory manufactured drugs, are taken specifically for their effects on consciousness. If we look at the writings by individuals such as Aldous Huxley or Albert Hoffman describing their experiences on LSD, we see they mirror those described by mystical writers, said Beyerstein. Hallucinogenic drugs are known to produce their effects through biochemical interactions with specific receptors and neurotransmitters at particular sites in the brain.

     We now know that most serious thought disorders such as schizophrenia are the result of biochemical disorders in the brain. It is no accident that schizophrenic experiences sound so similar to drug induced hallucinations and mystical experiences.

     The irony, said Beyerstein, is that I am convinced that all these things are acting on the same system in the brain, yet in our society only a narrow range of these channels is acceptable. If you manipulate your brain at a revival meeting, that's great. If you get the pill from your doctor, that's OK too; but if you buy the drug off the street you might be thrown in to jail. In some cultures and times if you talked about these experiences you would be made the shaman and be given specials rights and privileges, but in another time or place you might be put to death.

Related pathologies

     About 10 percent of the population suffers migraine headaches. The prodrome leading into the migraine often produces unusual emotional and visual effects, which in some cases may be interpreted as other-worldly. The brain's purpose is to instill meaning, so it is not surprising that the raw experience of minor visual effects of zigzags, shooting stars and light flashes may be embellished into complete experiences, said Beyerstein. Psychiatrist and author Oliver Sacks described a patient whose prodrome was an intense feeling of impending doom or importance. While it was occurring the patient was unable to step outside of his present reality model to identify it as simply a developing migraine, despite its repeated occurrence.

     Epilepsy is caused by abnormal electrical firing of the neurons in the brain. There are several types of epilepsy, the most dramatic and well-known form being the grand mal seizure which arises from massive, random electrical firing in the motor cortex of the brain. Petit mal seizures have a smaller, more localized firing patterns with varying and usually less dramatic effects. Less commonly known is temporal lobe epilepsy which, because of where it is localized in the brain, produces experiences similar to transcendence. Out-of-body experiences, déjà vu, feelings of possession and cosmic consciousness have all been reported to arise during these seizures. In some cases seizures may occur during full consciousness and may not be obvious to observers, said Beyerstein.

Probing the brain

     In the 1950s, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield mapped the brains of his epileptic patients as he conducted surgeries to control their epilepsy. He used only a local anesthetic and mild sedation during surgery so his patients could tell him what they felt as he probed different areas in their brain. He found that when he touched the temporal lobe, the same area which fires wildly in temporal lobe epilepsy, patients reported out-of-body experiences and feelings of déjà vu  and cosmic consciousness. Widespread stimulation evoked fear and general anxiety, while more gentle stimulation evoked intense joy and meaningfulness.

     Ethically Penfield's surgeries cannot be repeated solely for research purposes, so psychobiologist M. Persinger developed a non-invasive means to produce mild temporal lobe stimulation. He used a specially wired helmet to generate magnetic fields over the temporal lobes of normal, college-aged volunteers. Students often reported feeling an unseen entity or something outside of themselves trying to take control of them.

     Persinger conducted psychological tests designed to answer questions like: What does this volunteer believe? Are they given to a rational or mystical view of life? He manipulated the setting in which the experiments were conducted, for example decorating with religious symbols or playing new age music. He examined how these beliefs and symbols affected an individual's interpretation of his laboratory experience. Persinger found interactions between volunteers' hopes, expectations and beliefs when they arrived and the subtle environmental and conversational cues they received before the experiment.

Where it all comes together

     Is there a common mechanism behind all transcendent experiences, regardless of their triggering circumstances? Is there a region in the brain where all these emotional, biochemical and electrical stimuli would be known to create transcendent-like effects?

     Evidence now points to an area, located between the brain stem and the newer evolved cerebral cortex, which houses the main emotional and motivational circuitry of our brains, said Beyerstein. This region holds a collection of identifiable nuclei and neuropathways, all interconnected into a functional feedback control system, called the limbic system. The pathways within this region are so interconnected that this is the most seizure prone part of the brain, said Beyerstein. It is also an area known to be affected by sensory deprivation and three major classes of hallucinogenic drugs, it is involved in some operations of the major thought disorders and it is known to be entrained by rhythmic stimuli like those used to trigger mystical experiences.

Conclusions

     "I am willing to grant that [transcendent experiences] feel real, but that comes back to the question: Why does anything feel real?" said Beyerstein. "It is because your brain creates a model of what feels real."

     Our brain combines all available information, including incoming sensory input and previously stored memories, and creates an internal cognitive model of reality. This model is usually based largely on external sensory information, said Beyerstein, but occasionally it is built entirely from input from inside the head. Regardless of what it is constructed from, it will feel just as real, and under some circumstances it can feel more real than real.

     "So just as you can have sensory hallucinations, you can have hallucinations of importance. You can have hallucinations of reality, because this is the system that normally tells you what is important. Ordinarily it does so in a gentle and more lawful way, but if it goes amuck, what you get are feelings of awe, wonderment and portentousness," said Beyerstein.

     Beyerstein asked in his Skeptical Inquirer (Spring 1988) article: If we cannot prove that "any experience of possession, conversion, revelation, or divine ecstasy was merely an epileptic discharge, we must ask how one would differentiate between 'real transcendence,' and neuropathologies that produce the same extreme realness, profundity, ineffability, and sense of cosmic unity."

     Are all the experiences that have come down through the ages in mystical literature the same? Are they similar in cause to those induced by psychedelic drugs or pathology? "When you compare the different descriptions and experiences, it is certainly a fruitful hypothesis for research to say yes," said Beyerstein.
 


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beyerstein, B. L. (in press) Graphology. In G. Stein, ed., Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Beyerstein, B. L. (in press) Visions and hallucinations. In G. Stein, ed., Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Beyerstein, B. L. (in press) Altered states of consciousness. In G. Stein, ed., Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Beyerstein, B. L. (in press) Dissociation, possession, and exorcism. In G. Stein, ed., Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1996) Believing is seeing: Organic and psychological reasons for hallucinations and other anomalous psychiatric symptoms. Medscape Mental Health 1(11)

Ebbern, H., S. Mulligan, and B. Beyerstein, (1996) Maria's near-death experience: Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Skeptical Inquirer July/Aug 20(4):27-33.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1995) Science versus Pseudoscience. Victoria, B.C.: Centre for Curriculum and Professional Development.

Beyerstein, B. L. & Beyerstein, D. F., eds. (1992) The Write Stuff: Scientific Evaluations of Graphology. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1991) The brain and consciousness: Implications for psi phenomena. In K. Frazier, ed., The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, pp. 43-53.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1991) The myth of alpha consciousness. In K. Frazier, ed., The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, pp. 95-110.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1990) Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age. Intl. J. of Mental Health. Special issue on quackery 19(3):27-36.

Marchant, E. & Beyerstein, B. L. (1990) Herbal humbug: The case against matol. The Rational Enquirer 3(4):1-5.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1989) What ever possessed you? Contemporary Psychology 34(4):381-382.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1989) The 10% solution. The Rational Enquirer 3(2):12-14.

Beyerstein, D. F. & Beyerstein, B. L. (1988) The use of graphology as a tool for employee hiring and evaluation. The Democratic Commitment 22(2):1-6.

Beyerstein, B.L. (1988) Psychosis and possession. Skeptical Inquirer 13:93-96.

Beyerstein, B.L. (1988) Neuropathology and the legacy of spiritual possession. Skeptical Inquirer (Spring) 12:248-262.

Beyerstein, B.L. (1987) The brain and consciousness: Implications for psi phenomena. Skeptical Inquirer (Winter) 12:163-173.

Beyerstein, B. L. (1987) Neuroscience and psi-ence. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10(4):571-2.
 
 

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