Gods and Gamma.

Here’s something interesting: “God Has Sent Me To You” by Arzy and Schurr, in Epilepsy & Behavior (not to mention the usual pop-sci sites that ran with it a couple weeks back). Middle-aged Jewish male, practicing but not religious, goes off his meds as part of an ongoing treatment for grand mal seizures (although evidently “tonic-clonic” seizures is now the approved term). Freed from the drugs, he is touched by God. He sees Yahweh approaching, converses with It, accepts a new destiny: he is now The Chosen One, assigned by the Almighty to bring Redemption to the People of Israel. He rips the leads off his scalp and stalks out into the hospital corridors in search of disciples.

God on the Brain. From Arzy and Schurr, 2016

God on the Brain. From Arzy and Schurr, 2016

That’s right: they got it all on tape. Seven seconds of low-gamma spikes in the 30-40Hz range (I didn’t know what that was either— turns out it’s a pattern of neural activity associated with “conscious attention”).

(The figures might lead you astray if you don’t read the fine print: they didn’t actually get God’s footprints on an MRI. They got them on one of those lo-tech EEGs that traces squiggly lines across a display, then they photoshopped the relevant spikes onto an archival MRI image for display purposes.)

Regardless, the findings themselves are really interesting. For one thing, the God spikes manifested on the left prefrontal cortex, although the seizure was concentrated in the right temporal. For another, God took Its own sweet time taking the stage: the conversion event happened eight hours after the seizure. They’re still trying to figure out what to make of all this.

The behavioral manifestations are classic, though. This guy didn’t just believe he was the chosen one; he knew it down in the gut, with the same certainty that you know your arm is attached to your shoulder. When asked what he was going to do with his disciples when he recruited them, he admitted that he had no plan, that he didn’t need one: God would tell him what to do.

God didn’t, of course. They managed to shut the psychosis down with olanzapine, returned the patient to normalcy a few hours after the event. As far as I know he’s back at work, his buddies on the factory floor blissfully unrecruited.

But what if he hadn’t got better?

This is hardly the first time temporal-lobe epilepsy has been implicated in religious fanaticism; medical correlates extend back to the seventies, and tonic-clonic seizures have been trotted out to retrospectively explain martyrs and prophets going all the way back to the Old Testament. Perhaps the most famous such case involved Saul of Tarsus.

Of course, there are more pedestrian explanations...

Of course, there are more pedestrian explanations…

You know that guy. First-century dude, dual citizen (Saul was his Jewish name, Paul his Roman one— let’s just call him SPaul). Didn’t much like these newfangled Christian cults that were springing up everywhere following the crucifixion. His main claim to fame was being the coat-check guy at the stoning of Stephen, up until he was struck blind by a bright light en route to Damascus.

God spoke to SPaul, too. Converted him from nemesis to champion on the spot. There was no olanzapine available. It’s been two thousand years and we’re still picking up the pieces.

Epilepsy isn’t the only explanation that’s been put forth for SPaul’s conversion. Some have argued for a near-miss by a meteorite, on the grounds that the blinding light couldn’t have been hallucinatory since Saul’s traveling companions also saw it. That’s true, according to some accounts; other versions have those same companions hearing God’s voice but not seeing the light. If I had to choose (and if I was denied the option of dismissing the whole damn tale as retconned religious propaganda), I’d believe the latter iteration, and chalk those sounds up to a bout of ululation during the seizure. Speaking in tongues, blindness— most dramatically, of course, the whole hyper-religiosity thing— are all consistent with temporal-lobe epilepsy.

Messiahs. The movie was actually a lot more accurate than many theologians would like to admit.

Messiahs. The movie was actually a lot more accurate than many theologians would like to admit.

Unlike his (vastly less-influential) 21st Century counterpart, SPaul was not charged with Redeeming the Israelites: Jesus already had dibs on those guys. Instead, Paul claimed that Yahweh had assigned him to preach to the Gentiles, a much vaster market albeit not the one for whom Christ’s teachings were originally intended. Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield speculates that the reason SPaul had such a hate-on for Jesus in the first place might have been because SPaul regarded himself as the Messiah. (Apparently every second person you met back then regarded themselves as The Chosen One, thanks to Scriptures which promised that such a savior was due Any Day Now, and to ancillary prophecies vague enough to apply to anyone from Rocket Raccoon to Donald Trump). This would imply that SPaul’s roadside conversion was not an isolated event, and sure enough there’s evidence of recurring hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur at other times in his life (although these may be more consistent with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder than with epilepsy). According to Schonfield, SPaul— denied the job of Jewish Messiah— took on the Christ’s-Ambassador-to-the-Gentiles gig as a kind of consolation prize.

Good company, at least. Murray et al 2012.

Good company, at least. Murray et al 2012.

The irony, of course, is that modern Christianity is arguably far more reflective of SPaul’s teachings than of Jesus’s. Cue two thousand years of crusade, inquisition, homophobia, and misogyny.

So let us all bow our heads in a moment of silent gratitude both for the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals, and for the diligent neurologists at Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center. Thanks to them, we may have dodged a bullet.

This time, at least.

 

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday May 30 2016at 08:05 am , filed under ass-hamsters, neuro . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

30 Responses to “Gods and Gamma.”

  1. Take the location specificity with a grain of salt, given the preponderance of artifacts in that region – see comment on http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2016/05/14/7755/

    Potential artifact notwithstanding, the event itself remains fascinating, as do the implications. I wonder if these events always incorporate conventional dogma – or if we just don’t hear about the events where the individual produces their own (somehow more bizarre) religion on the spot.

  2. Logan Dowdle: Take the location specificity with a grain of salt, given the preponderance of artifacts in that region – see comment on http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2016/05/14/7755/

    Yeah, I noticed that. Didn’t worry overmuch because even after they restored the ocular noise, the location of the hot spot hadn’t changed (although it had diffused somewhat). Also, given that the data weren’t acquired via MRI anyway, I figure the EEG-MRI mapping may be more problematic.

  3. What is the next step? Induce religion in a hardened atheist and then ‘cure’ the test subject?

  4. Your description of nothingth-century Judea as filled with would-be Messiahs makes me think that Monty Python’s line — “You _are_ the Messiah, Lord … and I should know, I’ve followed a few” — was even more insightful than they knew.

    More to the point, the idea that St Paul settled for a consolation prize reminds me of a probably apocryphal story about an asylum that had not one but two patients who were convinced that they were the Virgin Mary. One of the doctors had the bright idea of bringing them together, in the hope of shocking them both out of the delusion.

    It worked — partially. One of the women continued to believe that she was the Virgin. The other, recognizing the impossibility of there being two Virgin Marys, concluded that she was Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Presumably, if they’d repeated the experiment a few more times with additional women they could have completed the set with Mary the wife of Cleopas, and the Magdalene.

    Not everyone gets to be the hero, but there’s always room for a few more sidekicks.

  5. I wonder if there is any non-parodic religion not based on psychosis.

  6. Logan Dowdle: I wonder if these events always incorporate conventional dogma – or if we just don’t hear about the events where the individual produces their own (somehow more bizarre) religion on the spot.

    One does shudder to think what the world would look like without the existence of public mental health institutions.

    At least now we have a scientific diagnosis of religulousness. Although I still suspect that most tent-revival-types claiming to “speak in tongues”, etc., are simply rip-off artists fleecing the… er… low-informed. Or maybe they are somehow able to self-induce the seizures at will?

  7. AngusM,

    You beat me to the obligatory “Life of Brian” quote!

    I think the Python gang knew exactly how insightful their lines were in that movie. Brilliant stuff, exactly in tune with this post’s theme.. “I’m not the Messiah!” – “Only the messiah would say that!”..

  8. Fatman:
    Although I still suspect that most tent-revival-types claiming to “speak in tongues”, etc., are simply rip-off artists fleecing the… er… low-informed. Or maybe they are somehow able to self-induce the seizures at will?

    I grew up in a pentecostal denomination, spoke in tongues and all that. I didn’t experience it as self-induced seizures. I also didn’t fleece my friends.

    Ps. deconverted only later to fall in to python programming. I had made the connection until just now.

  9. I don’t think I’d say that negative symptoms were absent.

  10. Any indication that there is an increase in charisma associated with these delusions? Propagating a new religion (or revivifying an old one) requires a certain amount of personal magnetism, I would think, that your average schlub doesn’t have.

  11. There are lots of people who believe they are the Chosen Ones. The interesting question is what makes a few of them successful in convincing others of their claim?

  12. Alien brain syndrome.

  13. Fascinating and deeply creepy – mostly because I fear some sort of head trauma turning me into someone else. I understand intellectually how fragile and illusory a construct is the conscious self, but it doesn’t make the possibility of being accidentally rewired any less scary.

    Also, this made me laugh out loud:

    “God spoke to SPaul, too. Converted him from nemesis to champion on the spot. There was no olanzapine available. It’s been two thousand years and we’re still picking up the pieces.”

    Reminds me of a delightful Douglas Adams short story called “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe.” It has some terrifically funny satire of the danger of true believers and certain superficially benign but very persuasive personality types. (He later said he intended the unnamed character to satirize Reagan, but I’ve always thought it reads better as a satire of Christ.)

  14. Matthew,

    Well Reagan was perhaps a messianic figure for the republican party…

  15. Logan Dowdle,

    I guess it comes down to what other things are “wrong” in the gray matter.

  16. Matthew,

    I’ve sometimes wondered if I suffered a head trauma that resulted in everyone thinking that I appeared to be a different person if I would also feel I was a different person. I suspect I’d probably still feel like me, in which case, the problem from my perspective would probably be that people were treating me differently, rather than that I had “changed”. I think I would consider myself to be the same person, but, in accounting for my different behaviour, acting more in accord with my true nature. So, existentially, not so much a problem as an upgrade…

  17. I’m thinking the gut bugs are on to us, have become self-aware, and are saying, “Who, us? Look at the pretty lights up top. That’s it. You’re becoming very sleepy now…”

  18. Phil,

    Good point. I guess I was imagining it from an impossible 1st person/3rd person hybrid POV. From a 1st person subjective POV, you would probably experience it as me-alpha one second and me-beta the next with no sense of incongruity or contradiction. Only those on the outside would perceive the change as problematic. So, I guess the fear I’m really naming is the same old fear of death but in a new form: fear of a kind of mental-only, virtual death of this subjective self. Won’t matter to me-beta, but me-alpha still fears the ceasura of non-existence that stands between me and him.

  19. Dan Reid:
    I wonder if there is any non-parodic religion not based on psychosis.

    How to do an end-run around Pastafarianism there, Dan.

    Lars:
    Any indication that there is an increase in charisma associated with these delusions? Propagating a new religion (or revivifying an old one) requires a certain amount of personal magnetism, I would think, that your average schlub doesn’t have.

    bookworm1398:
    There are lots of people who believe they are the Chosen Ones. The interesting question is what makes a few of them successful in convincing others of their claim?

    These are good points. If A&S had really been in a scientific mood, they’d have held off on the olanzapine and followed the guy around, keeping track of how many disciples he managed to enlist.

    Stupid “ethics guidelines”…

  20. My future self might end up pretty different to my present self, but I probably wouldn’t want to auto-euthanise before it’s too late, unless I catch myself turning in to Hitler or Trump. (I need to create a prosthetic that will kill me if it detects a condition like that.).

    So, religion. My guess is that some reach these altered mental states via epilepsy, in others it might just be a deep practice of getting to an altered mental state (see also monks and neural correlates of medication.)

    Ps. prophets not exhibiting negative traits of schizophrenia.. er… I turns out I’m not motivated enough to look up the scriptures to match descriptions to negative symptoms. I’ll be lazy: Social withdrawal is one example, and the stories talk about times wandering in the wilderness. the descriptions might sound more like depression or despair than a negative symptom, I can’t remember the monologues and setting.

    if you are writing a story you could present it in a way consistent with schizophrenia or some condition like that. but, maybe mixed positive/negative symptoms isn’t realistic, check on it. or, invoke artist license, because it makes sense in the context of a world where people get to do deep body modification so that if business calls for some schizotypal thinking for a project, someone puts on an MRI hat.

  21. Lots of God-phobia in these comments.

  22. pavel chichikov,

    For me, it’s more a phobia of a subset of religious people. I still have a twinge of anxiety every time I visit home due to that time I got taken against my will to be prayed over.

  23. pavel chichikov:
    Lots of God-phobia in these comments.

    Not god directly but his/hers supposed preachers…

  24. pavel chichikov:
    Lots of God-phobia in these comments.

    Just a general phobia of insanity, or something not being quite right in the brain.

  25. This book shows up in the references, would any of you recommend it?

    God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World by Michael S.A. Graziano
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7813616-god-soul-mind-brain

  26. AngusM,

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Christs_of_Ypsilanti

  27. […] There a Reproducibility Crisis in Science? And since we’re discussing science, how about some Gods and Gamma? Allow us to wax a little blasphemous as the author expands upon the theory that the great […]

  28. I had heard, quite some time ago, that it would not be unreasonable to suggest that “SPaul”‘s conversion might very easily be blamed on transient ischemic attacks. Searching for that, I did find a fascinating little page where it mentions, among other things, that most mental illnesses develop rather slowly, over extended timeframes, and that very rapid onset should be considered a “[…] red flag for biological abnormalities such as vascular disease, strokes, nutritional deficits, infections, hormone irregularities, tumors, or exposure to toxins”. I can certainly imagine that the experience of TIAs might be understood as a close encounter with the divine, and no less so to even to a modern neurologist than to someone living in that first-century weltgeist.

  29. I worked several times — quite a few decades ago — at mental hospitals, and recall elderly people brought in by police for ‘acting mental’ who had undoubtedly had small strokes. The “very rapid onset” info at the suggested link
    Missing The Diagnosis: The Hidden Medical Causes of Mental Disorders
    http://www.continuingedcourses.net/active/courses/course067.php
    is instructive.

  30. whelp, I’m still behind on reading nonfiction books. But, while looking through reviews for that Graziano book I found that his later one came more highly recommended (Consciousness and the Social Brain). He’s proposed a theory of consciousness called Attention Schema Theory.

    Recently, he published an article in The Atlantic about it.
    A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved: A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves.