Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality

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And I spent endless hours with people who had enjoyed dramatic spiritual experiences. Some had had spontaneous mystical experiences, right out of the blue. Some transcendent moments were triggered by a trauma, others by drugs, or epilepsy, or near-death experiences. Some people spent hundreds of hours in prayer and meditation to cultivate the ability to connect with the divine.

I confess that my exploration was not an entirely clinical. I was raised a Christian Scientist, and while I now consider myself a serious mainstream Christian, I have always believed in the presence and power of God. At the beginning I nursed a nagging concern that perhaps this God business is just a ruse, self medication in the face of certain death.

The Science of Spirituality: A Review of Fingerprints of God

I fretted that science would prove that all mystery, all transcendent experience, can be boiled down to brain chemistry and genetics. But I can say this: By the end of my research, I had redefined God and my view of reality. And perhaps at the end of the book, you will too. Visit Seller's Storefront.

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Published by Tantor Audio, Condition: Good. Save for Later. Shipping: Free Within U. About this Item Ships with Tracking Number! May not contain Access Codes or Supplements. A woman who was bitten by a dog when she was a girl will shrink from my yellow Lab because her memory of dogs has been stamped with a particular emotional meaning fear.

But for someone like me, who grew up surrounded by dogs, my yellow Lab evokes only love and warm memories. Same dog, same parts of the brain, different meaning. At the start of the seizure, the cells in the brain begin to move in rhythm with one another, creating a powerful synchrony. The symptoms the person exhibits depend on the area of the brain in which this rhythmical spiking occurs. If the seizure zeroes in on the motor area of the brain, you might see the right thumb twitch or the left arm jerk around. If the electrical storm occurs in the temporal lobe—which is likely, since the temporal lobe is the most electrically unstable part of the brain—then the person could experience an emotionally vivid aura—that is, the beginning of a seizure.

Because of the spiking, all these normal emotions have an exclamation point after them. People may hear music or words, presumably from their memory bank—and instead of being just snatches of remembered sound, they are music from the heavenly spheres or messages from God. They may see flashes of light and interpret it as an angel visiting from heaven. They may feel a sense of unreality and disconnection from the world and believe that they are experiencing an alternate reality.

They may sense the presence of another being and believe that presence is God, or the devil. They can feel terror or in very rare cases ecstasy. And these sights, sounds, and feelings have cosmic weight, because the storm in their brain is telling them so. If this electrical storm rolls through often enough, it physically rewires the brain. And in this may lurk a clue as to why many people—Christian Pentecostals, Orthodox Jews, Sufi mystics—seem to look at the world through the prism of faith.

It may be that their brains are tailor-made for God. The day was bitterly cold, gray, with snow flurries threatening a storm that would soon drop a foot of snow on the city. Yet this was nothing compared with the neurological storms that I was about to witness. Gregory Barkley, the director of the epilepsy clinic, had graciously set up appointments for me to interview patients whose epileptic seizures had transcendent elements. One of them was Mary. In the photo I took of her, Mary wears a royal-blue turtleneck and black pants.

Her brown hair is streaked with gray and worn in a pageboy style reminiscent of the s. Her head is cocked to the right, her narrow shoulders droop, and her lips press together in a sad, straight line. The picture deceives. When Mary talks, she springs to life, a jack-in-the-box whose dramatic gestures sweep you into her sphere and shower you with a joy that belies her chronic disease. Mostly you feel her obsessive love for God. Very few sentences pass her lips without mention of the Blessed Sacrament or Jesus, the lives of ancient saints or present-day nuns.

Raised Catholic, Mary suffered her first tonic-clonic seizure when she was fifteen years old. With aunts who were nuns and a cousin who became a Jesuit priest, Mary was rich soil for a bumper crop of Catholic faith.

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Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality

As she described her life, it seemed that every moment contained dual meaning—in this world and in the spiritual realm. Nothing was coincidence. She recalled one afternoon when her seizure lasted only about thirty seconds. I thought that was so neat, that maybe that was part of the repository of grace in the world. I believe in the mystical body of Christ, so maybe that [brief seizure] was required of me for his happy passage. They did. And the first time I was seen by the surgeon afterwards was the first Saturday in May, and the month of May was dedicated to the Blessed Mother.

And then my last appointment with the surgeon was on the feast of the Epiphany. In recent years, researchers have searched for a reason why temporal lobe epilepsy would render a person hyperreligious. Early on, emotional reasons headed the list: the desire for solace from a loving God, for example, or a way to cope with and find meaning in a life punctuated with abrupt fits. But now neurologists are finding physical clues as well.

Recently, for example, some researchers found that in people with temporal lobe epilepsy the hippocampus the memory region is smaller than normal. While neurologists are not certain what those abnormalities mean, one thing is clear: the brains of people with temporal lobe epilepsy are physically different from yours or mine. And the physical differences are probably dwarfed by the functional differences. And at some point, this cosmic interpretation of events becomes the norm. When you have occasional spikes from seizures, the UCLA neurologist explained, that extra electrical activity creates new connections between nerve cells.

The more seizures, the stronger the connections. Eventually, the nerve cells form habits, like knee-jerk reactions of the brain. Mary had no doubt her brain was attuned to religious experience. You need to protect yourself. Mary smiled at me, then continued. Because I pray for people and I start getting their symptoms. Say I thought this was just an electrical storm in your head.

What would you say? Mary smiled kindly. Many scientists would say that Jordan Sinclair and Mary are cursed with faulty wiring in their brains. If God is an electrician in this case, He miscalculated the voltage with tragic results. On a regular basis, the electricity in their temporal lobe surges and the circuit breaker flips on. The visions or transcendent feelings that the faulty wiring creates are nothing more than hallucinations.

But suppose the proper analogy is not an electrical storm but a radio transmission, in which the brain is a radio receiver. This thought did not originate with me. Several scientists I interviewed proposed the idea. In this analogy, everyone possesses the neural equipment to receive the radio program to varying degrees. Many hear their favorite programs every now and again. Others, through no fault of their own, have the volume turned up too high, or they are receiving a cacophony of noise that makes no sense, as if they were tuning in to stations transmitting from Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama, while they drive through rural Georgia.

This is not to say that all our thoughts come from another, spiritual, realm, any more than everything we hear comes through the radio. It merely suggests that perhaps people suffering with an overactive temporal lobe are able to tune in to another dimension of reality, which the rest of us are unable to access. Maybe they just had better antennae. Terrence smiled graciously when I met him at Henry Ford Hospital, even though I had kept him waiting for some time. A handsome forty-seven-year-old African-American, lean and muscular in his pullover sweater,Terrence spoke softly, almost shyly.

Several years earlier, Terrence had undergone an operation that left him with a stuttering problem. His words, though they spilled drop by drop from his mouth, glistened with insight and originality. As I listened to him, I thought: This is a man who sees the world differently.

What Terrence sees is either hallucination or an alternate reality, depending on your point of view. And I have a sense that it is a very evil presence. I can see it now—well, I can re-create that experience. He leaned forward. And they can not only tune into them but move in consonance with those sounds, whereas other folks are just sticking to what others would agree is the dominant beat.

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He laughed. He had grown, if not fond of, then accustomed to his extra sense that he believed allowed him to tap into a different dimension.


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We pay visual artists to make perceptible the images they have in their minds. And I guess this goes into a whole area of what we would call mental illness, and why we classify these things as illnesses rather than just differences. We have a habit of trying to bring people into conformity through medication and modern science and all kinds of things. This is the pivotal question.

Are we medicating away realities or delusions? Science believes it has the dispositive answer. Recently a group of Swiss researchers was evaluating a twenty-two-year-old woman for possible brain surgery. The researchers were homing in on a particular spot in the brain—the junction of the temporal lobes emotional self and the parietal lobes the area that orients your body in space and in relation to other objects.

When the surgeon electrically stimulated that area, the patient felt the presence of another person behind her. Finally the researchers stimulated her brain while she performed a naming test, holding a card in her right hand. She reported that the man, now behind her to her right, was getting pushy probably smarting from her earlier rebuff and trying to interfere with her task. Making them disappear is far more common. Indeed, that is what epilepsy specialists are paid to do. They lesion, or cut into, the brain and remove the offending tissue, or they medicate the brain and tamp down the electrical spikes.

More than twenty years ago, when he worked as a resident at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Devinsky was called to consult on a woman who had a brain lesion. The brain scan showed an abnormality in her right temporal lobe, and her EEG showed that the region was experiencing continuous seizure.

NPR religion reporter dusts off fingerprints of God - The Salt Lake Tribune

But you could also argue that this proves nothing about the existence of God. Consider, once again, the brain as a radio. Either way, chances are the radio will not be picking up All Things Considered , even though the program is in fact broadcasting. In the same way, if there is an alternate reality, if there is a God who is constantly sending out signals, surgery or medication can destroy the ability to receive them—but God could still be speaking. As I considered all I had learned about temporal lobe epilepsy, I realized I had circled back to the same irritating conundrum.

Is the transcendent experience of an epileptic like music playing on a CD player—a closed loop dependent on nothing but the machinery? Or is it like a radio—tuning in to a hidden spiritual reality outside your physical brain?

Most scientists believe the question has been answered. But that points more to the nature of scientific inquiry than to truth.

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No matter how many times Terrence Ayala and Sophy Burnham and Don Eaton shoot the ball through the hoop, they cannot score points. But for readers who consider themselves to be spiritual seekers, Hagerty treads some fascinating territory. Rather than dismissing science as the enemy of spirituality, she engages with it, seeking out scientific pioneers, the outliers who are doing intriguing work on the nature of the brain and consciousness. Hagerty, the religion correspondent for National Public Radio , comes to a less-than-startling conclusion: Science can neither prove nor disprove these great questions.

While more than 90 percent of the general public believes in God, only 7 percent of elite scientists do, according to recent polls. We are monkeys just out of the trees. Hagerty, who has covered the Justice Department and Sept. She includes detailed explanations of how many scientists explain spiritual experiences as illusions, chemical reactions, mere tricks of the material brain. But, she and other researchers wonder, does the brain always cause the experiences — or sometimes respond to something external?

More than a decade of soul-searching took place before she was willing to write it, she says. Her story begins at a time of depression and physical illness in which she turns away from the religion of her childhood and young adult years, Christian Science. She recounts physical healings experienced by her mother and grandmother, both practicing Christian Scientists, through prayer alone.

At one point she calls on a Christian Science practitioner to pray with her to locate several minidisks with her research notes for the book that had been lost in the mail. A few weeks later a Postal Service manager phones to say they had been found. The transcendent experiences she shares are not denominational, though they are intriguingly similar.

She worries that her religious upbringing, or perhaps even her genes, are influencing her conclusions.