In the previous post, Psychology of Belief, perhaps the most interesting of the videos is this one: Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations.
One of the believers in the video said, “God speaks in a whole bunch of different ways”, and there’s the rub. For the believer who avoids inflicting some of the psychological influences on others, do they check to see if they’ve been influenced that way? I think this particular psychological effect is probably the trick that holds it all together, the self-affirmation, the self-reassurance, that all the other psyche effects are in fact valid, because we’ve experienced God speaking to us. But have we?
Being told to listen and God will speak can lead us to interpret that in any way that seems to fit – confirmation bias – and so maybe our own intense feelings are interpreted as God speaking. When we think of how our brains work, using what little we yet know, we have a mechanism that consists of neurons, chemicals and electrical impulses, and out of that come feelings, sub-conscious events, and conscious awareness and thoughts. The latest thinking is that the conscious thoughts we have are the outcome, the awareness that comes to the fore, of other events in the brain; so that conscious thoughts are post-event stories that we use to monitor what the brain is doing and to plan and feedback down to the sub-conscious and the motor areas. This is a mechanism that builds from birth and is something we take from granted as much as speaking – when in the full flow of free conversation we have no idea how the vague notions that we want to express are formed into grammatical words and syntactic sentences, it just happens.
Using this model it seems plausible that we could mistake rising awareness of feelings and sub-conscious thoughts as being from elsewhere. We have so many instances where thoughts just pop into our heads, and if we have the time to consider we sometimes wonder, where did that come from. We notice it most when we’re with someone and we’ve been trying to remember a name but can’t quite get it, so we forget the search, and sometime later up it pops, and we wonder, where did that come from? This particular type of event is so noticeable that we even comment to each other – if I suddenly say the name, ‘out of the blue’, the other person will ask, where did that come from?
Some pop ups have an obvious cause. If I’m thinking about a topic in full concentrations and something comes into my field of vision, or the phone rings, it’s clear that the interruption, the pop up, has an external source. If I suddenly get an itch, or a stomach ache, I know the noticeable has come from my body. But how do we judge were subconscious thoughts and feelings come from. The sudden intense rush of inspiration or insight or overwhelming awe or a divine intervention such as words from God, I think, are all events that occur in the brain through the stimulation of intense thought, the power of stress, or any number neurological stimulations.
That the brain is capable of intense feelings from neurological events is indisputable – that is how the brain works after all. But to put it in context we can think of the images of brain seizures, such as epilepsy, as an extreme case of brain event that is out of control. I’m not say that clinically these inspirational events are the same in any way – I don’t know the neurophysiology of what’s happening – but as an extreme model it seems plausible. The fact that epilepsy has been speculated to be the cause of many recorded events in history is an indication of the similarity, whether it be possession by demons, appearances of visions or words from God.
This video is one in a series on epilepsy. Though this series is focusing on the clinical condition of epilepsy it does give some insight into how the brain can have extreme events; and it’s something like this I’m speculation could be the mode of operation of inspiring brain events – as opposed to real words from God or possession by demons. Which seems more likely? Video #1 is also of interest in this context.
Having a feeling that we are in touch with God, or that we experience God does have a possible neurobiological explanation. There’s the notion of the ‘God module’ in the brain. I missed this Horizon programme. I don’t know to what extent Dr Daniel Giang, neurologist and member of the church, is right in his medical opinion, or to what extent he has confirmation bias. The important point is not that is a module that is specifically for seeing or hearing or experiencing God, but that it is one area of the brain that has several functions, and one apparent effect, possibly a side effect, is that it causes or interprets brain effects as divinely inspired and generally cause the subject to believe in the divine.
The brain has the ability to convince itself of something, even when on another level the subject knows intellectually that his own brain is mistaken. This is a well know example of a woman experiencing a man behind her. Other direct brain stimulations have been recorded as causing familiar songs to be hear in the brain, even though the subject knows there is no music playing. And in another case it has been possible to cause out of body experiences. Out of body experiences can also be induced with VR.
Also, to figure out whether a divine event is real, consider: are you measuring the misses as well as the hits? Or is a cognitive bias persuading you you’re hearing God speak, when it’s your own internal experiences, of yourself. Watch for the auditory illusion towards the end – “You can’t miss it when I tell you what’s there.” To what extent are interpretations of inner messages influenced by religious priming, so that just a ‘feeling’ can be interepreted as divine?
Hearing God speak, either as an auditory signal in the audio cortex, or as a deep emotional experience, doesn’t seem to need divine intervention – the brain can do this all by itself, and convince the subject that it is a divine intervention. If the subject is primed for this it might even be inevitable that the subject is convinced.