July 1997

Images of the Universe

Robert Bigelow spoke at the June meeting of Humanists of Utah on the history of astronomy leading up to current happenings in the scientific field. Robert ably filled in for Richard Cox who had a last minute conflict.

After a short summary of historical perspectives of our solar system, which was considered to be the universe, Robert Bigelow showed pictures taken by cameras aboard the Hubbell telescope. He explained some of the repairs that astronauts made and showed some before and after images that elucidated the benefits of the maintenance. The Hubble space telescope stands as a tribute to human ingenuity and creativity. It is controlled by a series of gyroscopes that allow land based scientists to use a large number of sophisticated instruments on board to study images throughout the universe.

Many of the images presented were taken from telescopes that operate in the non-visible portion of the light spectrum. We saw super nova, red giants, many star “nurseries,” probable developing solar systems, and many other wondrous sights. Perhaps the most interesting image was taken of what was thought to be the edge of the expanding universe, a place thought to be void of structures. The picture at first appeared to contain hundreds of never before seen stars, but on closer inspection, the “stars” were actually galaxies! Bigelow explained that the image had caused astronomers to increase their previous estimate of the number of estimated galaxies from about 100 billion to 400 billion.

Robert asked us to consider the number one billion. He indicated that if we were to receive $1000 every day, it would take over 2700 years to accumulate $1,000,000,000! And Carl Sagan is famous for the phrase, “billions and billions”–almost unimaginable!

–Wayne Wilson

Does God Merely Exist in the Brain?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

A recent survey shows that more than a third of American adults claim God speaks to them directly. But a Canadian neuroscientist has different ideas about this. Michael A. Persinger, head of the Neuroscience Research Group at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, and the author of more than 100 published technical articles on psychobiology, parapsychology, brain functions, and environmental health, says religious visions and divine voices are in fact the product of electrical flare-ups in your brain. God is in the brain’s chemistry, in your head.

We have found that we can reproduce many of these experiences in the laboratory by stimulating both of the brain’s temporal lobes, located on the sides of your head just over the ears. We discovered that the prototype of the God experience, the visitation experience, was the sense of a presence, the idea of an entity, something being nearby or behind you, and that this sense of a presence could be generated by stimulating or producing very weak magnetic fields over the brain.

What we call the sense of self is primarily involved with the left hemisphere of the brain, which has language processes. It is not an accident that people will fight and die to maintain their culture and language because this is tied intimately to the sense of self. Without language there is no sense of human self. We argue that there must be some kind of right-hemispheric equivalent, like the sense of self, but that which have the characteristics of the right hemisphere, such as emotion, vagueness and spatial characteristics. If you stimulated this hemisphere, you would expect to have this sense of presence that the person would identify as being real, not him/her, that is, ego-alien, the equivalent of the person’s sense of self represented within the right hemisphere. We have found that, if you stimulate the left hemisphere, the person is likely going to hear voices, which will be attributed to an ego-alien source, to something outside himself/herself. In most cultures, we have labels for this, which are often attributed to a god. When a person hears an instructing voice, and that voice is associated with intense meaningfulness because deep portions of the brain are stimulated, the person is convinced the voice is real. Culture then applies the “god” label to the voice. In most human cultures the label is Jehovah, Allah, God or an equivalent.

The fact that people believe that God speaks to one-third of them is actually normal human behavior because that is exactly what you would predict on the basis of how the human brain is organized. But the behavior is not supernormal or supernatural. The experience of the person is just as real as any other. A delusion by definition is an organization or belief that is not substantiated or substantiable. Therefore these experiences are delusions, but delusions do not have to be abnormal. Many of us have delusions. They are simply ways that we organize the world. They help us to reduce our anxiety.

Experimentally we know that the experience of positive and negative, of good and bad, can be stimulated in the brain directly; for example, when we stimulate the right hemisphere, which is associated with vigilance, apprehension, and fear, people attribute the sense of presence to something negative, very often a demon or a devil, or if they are more new-age, a malevolent alien.

The sense of a spirit or a soul is tied intimately to the sense of self. Accompanying the sense of self is the capacity to anticipate its own demise, and you can see this if you map the cognition, the thought process. That anticipation produces tremendous anxiety and apprehension. Usually there is a culture around that says, “No, you don’t die because you live independently onward.” That reduces the anxiety. The belief is reinforced; and that continuous, spiraling relationship of reducing the anxiety–the stronger the belief, the more the anxiety is reduced–continues. The person begins to believe there is a sense of self that will live on. It is a normal process to conclude that somehow your self is unique, that it is different from everyone else’s and that it may have immortality, particularly if your culture gives you a verbal label, such as God, which has as its characteristics infinity and is everywhere.

You can chemically or electronically manipulate the brain to produce religious ecstasy. That suggests you can experience inner peace without religious faith. Very often, after people are depressed psychologically, they have a religious conversion. There is an intimate relationship between a decrease in activity in the left temporal lobe and the propensity to have a religious conversion, to have sense of a changed self.

We are concerned that along with the experience often come beliefs, and what we have found historically is that beliefs can be potentially dangerous because a part of the belief system is that somehow the person’s beliefs are unique and are better than other people’s beliefs. There is a general tendency as a part of our self to think that the way we see the world is superior to the way other religions see it. Sadly, one of the historical ways of eliminating the competition is to kill it. A dark side of our egocentrism is the belief that people who do not share our experiences or beliefs are not quite as human, and that has been a long, historical path of human beings.

The God belief may be the last cherished illusion we have. By pursuing how the brain works, we may find out the actual purpose of the processes that create the God experience.