Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Spirit possession and religious experiences

One question that stumped me while on Coast to Coast AM was a caller who said that as a young seminarian, he had attended an exorcism. He asked what was happening in the brain. I pulled a blank, possibly due to the late hour. Later on, Sandra reminded me of two likely possibilities: epilepsy and schizophrenia.

Epilepsy has long been associated with holy (or unholy) status. In the book we describe how temporal lobe seizures often result in intense religious experiences, including feeling the presence of God, feeling that one is in heaven, and seeing emanations of light from the sky, from objects, and even from body parts. Famous epileptics who had religious visions include Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Seizure-induced visions may also lead to religious conversion. On the flip side, mental illness has been seen as a sign of not only holy status, but of demonic possession. Exorcism has been used as a means of casting out demons, but it can be a horrible - and dangerous - experience for the person "possessed," who is probably suffering from a neurological disorder.

Oddly enough, one category of people in which similar phenomena occur, but without a spiritual component, is mountaineers who go above an altitude of 2500 meters (about 8000 feet). Why? There's a good story there, and it's in our book.

Feel free to use this post to ask more questions.


Jimi_Z said...

It sounds as though you are saying that the more religious a person is, the more mentally unstable a person is. If I have a sound mind, I may have no religious thoughts. Is this the case?

Sam Wang said...

jimi_z, I am not sure how you arrived at your conclusion. The point is that visions, which can lead to sudden conversions, are likely to arise from seizure activity in the temporal lobe of the brain. Epilepsy is not a sign of having an "unsound mind." Also, most people arrive at their religious beliefs without having such visions.