The temporal lobes are one of the major lobes of the brain and are located behind the ears. They are most commonly associated with processing auditory information as well as emotions, language, and certain aspects of visual perception. They are also important for short term memory.
Temporal lobe seizures may stem from an anatomical defect or scar in the temporal lobes, but the cause is often unknown.
There is speculation that religious visions and trance like states are often hallucinations brought on by temporal lobe epilepsy. According to one patient, everything seemed interconnected and she felt that she finally understood the meaning of the universe when she was having a temporal lobe seizure, while another patient claimed he had out of body experiences and could feel God during his seizures. Some people like the famous Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, find their seizures blissful and spiritual, enjoying the feeling of being in perfect harmony with the universe. Many interpret their attacks as ‘a gift from God’ or ‘divine inspiration’ and experience timelessness and spacelessness.
According to VS Ramachandran, a renowned Indian neuroscientist, the most striking aspect of these people is that not only during the seizures, but also between the seizures, they have religious and mystical experiences. They say things like, “During the seizure, I experience God, I see the true meaning of the universe, for the first time in my life, I understand my place in the cosmic scheme of things. I’m talking to God” or “God is talking to me”.’
Ramachandran’s research was the first clinical evidence to link religious experience with the temporal lobes. However, it still doesn’t explain why some people have transcendent or religious experiences during their seizures.
Is God an illusion generated by a ‘God module’ in the brain, or is He communicating with us via structures in the brain specifically designed to transmit and receive His word? Is there a deeper mystery at play, as a philosopher or theologian might say? Also why do the temporal lobe seizure hallucinations take this particular form? Why don’t these patients hallucinate pigs or donkeys?
Research has proven that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics. Studies have also shown that the temporal lobe is not the only part of the brain involved in religious feelings, a decreased activity in the parietal lobe also leads to spiritual experience. Scientists in the field of neurotheology continue to examine these types of issues.
No one has been able to reach any definitive conclusion yet. I feel that the very fact that science can’t explain everything indicates that there is some higher power at play. Some scientists believe whatever causes the mystical experiences must be coming from deep within the temporal lobes, beyond the reach of brain scans, from core primordial experiences. Whatever it is, we can’t reduce spirituality to just something happening in the brain. Maybe there are designated areas in our brain through which God communicates with us. I guess it’s up to us to believe what our heart tells us.