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.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Call with your question

Late Monday night/early Tuesday morning, I'll be interviewed by George Noory for his syndicated nighttime show, Coast To Coast AM. Call me with your question! Coast to Coast is very unusual, and has guests ranging from Buzz Aldrin to Pamela Anderson to Michael Shermer. Here on the East Coast it airs from 2 to 5 AM (!). To find an AM radio affiliate near you, click here. The show broadcasts all over the US and Canada.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Keeping your brain fit

Christine Larson wrote a very nice story for US News and World Report summarizing the latest research on brain aging and what you can do about it. Yes, I'm quoted, but that's not the main reason I liked it. She did an excellent job of summarizing a lot of confusing research without oversimplifying. Take-home messages: participate in a lot of different activities, including some that are difficult and some you really enjoy, especially socializing with other people. Oh, and don't forget to exercise...but you knew that already.