Mystical Experience and the Language of Paradox
A Neuropsychological Correlation
Shortly after my father's liberation from a five-year-long political imprisonment, he wrote me this brief letter: "I had a mystical experience on the mountaintop of Cozia [in the Southern Carpathians]. It was an overwhelming experience of humanity, of a burning, creative desire and inspiration." This poem followed the letter.
by Imre Gellérd
"Lord, I don't ask for freedom if you grant me space.
I find peace, finally, in my cage."
Winged prisoner, languishing among narrow walls,
Thus beseeched the silent sky.
And the cage expanded. Winged prisoner greedily breathed
The sweet nectar of a new realm.
And suddenly, through iron bars,
He glimpsed the snow-peak, close and fascinating.
"Lord, this new home is still too narrow,
Let me build dream-castles under the stars."
"You may not," said the Lord, "this is your place."
"No?! Then, Lord, take my useless wings away.
Lord, you've done shoddy work in me,
Giving me wings but no space to fly.
Let the harmony be re-established,
Take my talents back from me!"
And the Lord said:
"Keep them and learn: high-soaring is not always the key to glory,
But the pure effort of small, fluttering strokes.
Neither is iron molded by power-hammers,
Rather by continuous, precise, tiny blows.
I know that creeping humiliates you
And the grace of height excites your wings.
But calm down: depth can be a peak, too,
And the crest sometimes witnesses vain soaring.
The valley is not where the winged prisoner longs for flight
And is not the peak where vain peacocks try to dazzle the sun.
Soulless spirits lower the mountains into valleys
And summit-hearts elevate tomorrows into heights.
Crawling with broken wings you still can lead,
And one can mark time in boots of seven-leagues.
Because it is not the size of wings and plans that matters,
But something else: after knowing all of these,
Do you really wish to fly to the illusory peaks?"
At that time my father's revelation was merely a poetic metaphor for me. Yet twenty years after his death, I came to appreciate the significance of his mystical experience--through my own similar experience on another mountain peak.
This is how I would have answered my father:
It was New Year’s Day, in the Himalayas. The most magnificent mountains of the world, Everest and Langstang, Ganesh and the twin Annapurnas lined up before us. The dark blue-purple sky suddenly turned to the flaming red of the dawn. A quiet ecstasy took over my senses as the tips of the peaks blushed one after another as if they were kindled. (The mountain peaks of our Transylvania must have looked the same when the beacon lights dialogued on the top of our mountains, signaling the approach of Tartar invaders.)
This was the spectacle of the peaks’ pageantry: Who is taller? Whose fiery cap is brighter? Who had the first glimpse of the new Sun? We from the jury’s balcony judged: Everest was the winner, Annapurna the next. And finally it was our turn, after waiting an entire year! Surya, the new Sun, curiously peeped out from behind the peaks but slipped back for a second to stretch. But in this moment, like a peal of thunder, the Sun made her glorious first appearance of the New Year. We burst into rapture witnessing such overwhelming beauty. People began to shout and sing everywhere. We hugged each other and reached our arms toward the Sun, as if we all were sun worshippers. And we were, all of us. Our sighs of prayer were in many languages of many traditions. The sacred was so immanent, so real. We burst in cries and peals of laughter--and the Sun was laughing with us! We celebrated the boundless life and faith eternal!
The early morning fog seemed to take root in the valleys and created the image of a sea, with many islands floating around, where God planted joyful people. In the village below the everyday drudgery slowly began. The Hindus did not have New Year's Day then. I wondered, would the Sun rise as solemnly for them as for us?
In this essay--after a brief survey of the literature about mystical experience and its language of paradox--I wish to weave together a case study with a double correlation: on the one hand, between my own mystical experiences (short and spectacular, as well as long-term and transformational) and my father’s, reconstructed from the language of paradox in his poem, and the mystical experience and its neuropsychological correlation on the other, based on my self-observations as a neuropsychiatrist.
Indeterminance and Mystical Experience
In his comprehensive article, F. Samuel Brainard states that it is difficult, if not impossible, to rationally define what "mystical experience" exactly means, in spite of its important role in religion. He adopts Sell's suggestion of a language of disontology contextualized in a discourse of specificity that denies anything more than the linguistic game of a singular account. Postmodern scholarship rejects a generic notion of mystical experience and only recognizes a plurality of such experiences without specific unifying qualities of "pancultural absolutes." Huston Smith champions the central role of mystical experience in perennial philosophy; Eugene d’Aquili and Stanislov Grof worked out neurophysiological models trying to make mystical experience more "tangible"; Sallie King proposes a "form of awareness in which the experiential sense of a separate subject and object is not present"; and Robert Forman and others argue for the experience to be understood as a form of "pure consciousness and unmediated awareness" (echoing William James).
One debate over issues of mysticism is “whether or not the quality of what is experienced (perennialist position) or the mode of interpretation (constructivist position) characterizes an experience as ‘religious.’” Especially the perennialist views of William James and Rudolph Otto have argued for the qualitative, descriptive criteria of unmediated, firsthand experiences with their numinous, transcendent, peak qualities. This contrasts with the constructivists, like Steven T. Katz, who have emphasized the mode of interpretation of a mediated experience. This postmodern philosophy is so reductive that it turns everything into language games, particularizing every instance to its context and its interpretations. Psychobiology has provided yet another instance of the mediated approach, which points to neuropsychological conditions as triggering factors in religious experiences, such as conversion in a time of crisis or loss of meaning (and this pertains to the case study in this essay).
Brainard's notion of "experiential reality" eventually leads to his conclusion of the paradox that he has described at the heart of the split in defining anything. He states that the two poles of the paradox cannot be (or have not been) resolved: (1) an experience, specifically a mystical experience, is private and publicly unknowable until it is turned into linguistic categories that intend to suggest a reality referred to in the category [of mysticism]; (2) what is shared is secondary and is the text to be studied in its tradition of language, culture, voice, et cetera. If this hermeneutical dilemma of objectification of an experience leads to multiple epistemologies (rational, intuitive, etc.), then paradox might be a solution to know privately and share publicly.
Brainard defines two core qualities of mystical experiences, in addition to a host of others: "nonordinariness" and "profundity." The language category that tries to describe it has an inherent vagueness--a vagueness in context, though--that in no way should be taken as a negative feature, for, as Wittgenstein pointed out, "inexact" does not mean unusable. For many scholars, however, "linguistic signification" requires specificity rather than vagueness. And logic requires reason. But the mystical experience is said to be "above," and outside of reason, and, most of the time, even unreasonable. I might add that it appears to be irreducible to a one-dimensional epistemology enshrined as a rationalistic realism.
The most "precise" characterization of mystical experience would be its "ineffable" nature. Francisco J. Varela, however, “encourages us to avoid the two extremes of ‘neuro-reductionism’ and ‘ineffability’ by cultivating an explicit, non-dual, ‘mutual determination between scientific analysis and experience.’” Perhaps the first-person witness, who is experientially grounded, offers some hope. But we know that an epistemology of denial can shout a witness down. That is our dilemma. We might have experienced unmerited love but any communication can be subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion and alerts us to the psychology of alienation.
Paradoxical Experience, Paradoxical Language
W. T. Stace extensively deals with paradoxes pertaining to mystical experience. Mystical consciousness itself is paradoxical, he argues. The "pantheistic paradox" is the best illustration of it: God is both identical and nonidentical with the world. It is the paradox of nirvana, in which the person both exists and ceases to exist. The language of mystics and any language trying to describe a mystical experience and to convey the nonordinariness and profundity of the experience is in some sense paradoxical in nature. The "ineffable" of William James, the "intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe" of Richard Bucke, the experience of my father on the mountaintop, the "trans-sensate" of Arthur Deikman or "filmiest of screens"--are all descriptive paradoxes that simply contradict ordinary logic. To these, Proudfoot adds the "anomalous" nature of the mystical occurrence--to distinguish it from an extraordinary and overwhelming, but non-mystical experience--a radical break from any "normality." We add to these the profundity of the experience, culminating in ecstatic fulfillment of "unitary-consciousness," the unio mystica of Bernard McGin and Michael Sells or the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum of Rudolph Otto. William James defines another important characteristic: the "noetic quality" of the mystical experience, emphasizing that beyond its profound emotional character, it also purports a certain intuitive knowledge.
The profundity of the knowledge thus acquired is more "real" and revealing than any rational illumination. The mystic glimpses the realm of the ultimate. But even "ordinary," every-day nature or love experiences can be labeled as mystical when experiential components such as a revealing profundity are present. Now we can return to our specific case study.
Metaphors of Hope in Spite of Despair
My father on the mountain peak had a flash of "insight into the depth of truth" in James's sense. Although he did not describe this to me, the resulting poem testifies to a complexity of insight, and even perhaps a premonition of his short-lived, tragic life. His experience had a deep ethical content of "unity with humanity." His highest ideal was to serve humankind by an unlimited creative energy and passion--yet a burning one, for he was denied the space to soar high with his wings of talent. He lived his life in a cage, and not even an expanding one, but a shrinking, suffocating trap. He hovered over the abyss and called unto the deep, the numinous depth of the One. Abyssum invocat abyssum. He intuitively used layered paradoxes on more than a mere linguistic/rhetoric level: "depth can be a peak" if one preserves one's humanity, and the peak is vanity if one pursues superficial recognition. In the burning, tormenting imprisonment of a communist "cage" of futurelessness, he could only find breakthrough in paradoxical language: “Soulless spirits lower the mountains into valleys [of shadows and death], And summit-hearts elevate tomorrows into heights.” Crawling with broken wings--although humiliating--one still can lead if one stays under the spell of the peak and the beauty of humanity, if one never gives up the burning, creative desire of the highest ethical commitment.
This occurrence contains another set of paradoxes: the paradox of intention, in two ways. First, what is surprising in my father’s case is that his tradition, Transylvanian Unitarianism, does not desire and even discredits mystical experience. In his writings, he used “mysticism” in a pejorative sense, most of the time. Yet despite our--my father’s and mine--religious tradition, this experience came to rely on the time-honored paradoxical formulations of mysticism. This case suggests a primacy of religious experience over belief.
Second, being denied the possibility to answer the call of his ideals directly, he paradoxically assumed an indirect, oblique way of reaching the goal, crawling with broken wings yet ascending toward the peak. William James puts it this way: "Stop trying and it will do itself!"
The paradox of intention, the letting go, often characterizes Meister Eckhart's writings. His very prayer to God was to be freed from God. He preached:
The just person does nothing with his works, for those who seek something with their works are knaves and hirelings, or those who work for a wherefore. ... Yes, I say that if you image God into yourself whatever works you do for that are all dead and you will spoil good works, and not only will you spoil good works, but you will sin.
My father intuitively recognized another paradox that was a key to his survival: that yielding is strength. His was "a paradoxically indirect approach to fulfillment contained within the ethic of consolation we may call 'the law of the reversal of effort.'" Lev Tolstoi and my father--in light of the ethical teaching of Jesus, "Resist no evil" (Matt. 5:39)--understood this paradox: "If we offer no opposition to that which opposes and threatens our aims, we are actually renouncing concern for self and commencing to live a life of service to others and to the life-force. In this letting go of self-concern, including the concern for the meaning of one's personal life, Tolstoi found a sense of fulfillment that he could not grasp through seeking it."
Viktor Frankl's logotherapy stems from this very basic paradox. He wrote about meaning that pertains to my father's own predicament:
This is why life never ceases to hold a meaning, for even a person who is deprived of both creative and experiential values is still challenged by a meaning to fulfill, that is, by the meaning inherent in the right, in an upright way of suffering.
Whenever one is confronted with an inescapable, unavoidable situation [of suffering], just then is one given a last chance to actualize the highest value, to fulfill the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering. For what matters above all is the attitude we take toward suffering, the attitude in which we take our suffering upon ourselves.
This type of discourse, Sells writes, carries what he calls aporia, or the unresolvable dilemma of transcendence--ineffable and beyond names. Yet to say that, although the ineffable is beyond names, a name must be given: "the transcendent." How to solve the dilemma? One way is remaining silent. The other two are apophasis--"negation" or un-saying and kataphasis, affirmation. The first lines of the Tao Te Ching is a classical example for apophasis. “The way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant [eternal] way; The name that can be named/ Is not the constant [eternal] name. Stace states, however, that the literal language of the mystical experience is always negative in character, describing the negative guise of the paradox. Mystics don't deny that they mean their symbolism of negation literally. In the context of the plenum-vacuum paradox--the darkness through which the great light shines forth--the question is about the positive statements. According to Stace, "only the positive words ... are alleged to be symbolical. It is in fact only the positive side which is alleged to be ineffable."
All of this would lead to the notion that aphophatic discourse about mystery--contrary to its apparent meaning--is not an obscure or secret notion rather "a referential openness onto the depth of a particular tradition, and into conversation with other traditions." Referential openness carries the tension between the saying and unsaying. The mystic is forced to use words which sometimes are embarrassingly contradictory. Arthur Koestler narrated his own mystical experience in these words:
The reflections I have put down so far were still on the rational level....But as we proceed to others in an inward direction, they will become more embarrassing and more difficult to put into words. They will also contradict each other--for we are moving here through strata that are held together by the cement of contradiction.
The experience of the merging with the One or reaching into the realm beyond defies ordinary logic and conventional linguistic categories. The plurality of things ceases to exist, multiplicity merges into a unity in the experiencer's consciousness. It is the experience that is paradoxical, not just the language that expresses it.
In the reconstructed experience of my father on the mountain peak from the evidence left in the poem, the world of the many merged into a glorious oneness--of God and of humanity. The world became identical with the One and his own self was fused in this unity. This type of experience would be an introvertive one, according to Stace's classification. Or even contrarily, if my father might have seen the space-time world as it was in its marvelous and rich colorfulness of multiplicity, yet recognizing the unifying principle behind it as the One, his experience would be an extrovertive type. In either way, ordinary language and logic is absolutely inadequate to express the profundity and nonordinariness of the experience. The power of the experience was utterly indescribable in space-time coordinates.
One of the most fascinating aspects about mystical experience and mystical literature is that the more ineffable the experience is, the greater the urge to recount it becomes--as if one wants to guard and to hang on to the most precious, yet fleeting moment, to store it in verbal categories in order not to lose it. My own reason to narrate and try to correlate my father's implied mystical experience with my own, stems from the same urge.
A “Mystical Dream”
One night I saw my father in a dream. Except, it was not a dream. I met my dead father while dreaming. At the edge of our village in Transylvania, he was waiting for me, his daughter with a broken heart and shattered faith, groaning at the edge of the abyss. He quietly wreathed his arm around me and I experienced the bliss as if being in the bosom of God. He walked me down the main street of the village, the scene of his Calvary, and into our church. By then I gathered enough strength to break the blissful union with my anxious question: “You won’t ever leave me again, will you?” “No, never!” and these two words have brought me salvation. In that moment of apotheosis I received my martyred father’s blessing with a new meaning and responsibility for my life: to become a martyr myself, in the sense of witness. Since then my actions, once again, have become coherent as I carry on my father’s broken dreams.
I was so deeply stirred, to my core, that I sobbed for a whole day afterward. The profundity and numinous power of the experience gave me a deep conviction that this was a "real" encounter with my father--and in no way "just" a dream. The intensity and quality of my joy defy language for it was far beyond the most ecstatic joy and rapture that I have ever experienced--it was bliss itself, in a “heavenly” sense. But there is another factor that holds my conviction that my experience was more real than ordinary reality is, and that is its radical, dramatic transformative effect on my life. In Wildman and Brothers' words, my mystical “experience of ultimacy” has induced a "character transformation and spectacular episode of conversion." Hovering above the abyss, having lost my faith, resenting God, conversion was the last thing my rational being was ready to accept. Paradoxically, my father was more alive than I--who was spiritually as good as dead--and he resurrected me. My whole being was recast in that fire of bliss, my brain "rewired," my emotions and senses re-awakened, the world re-colored--I was a new person "urgent with life," "soaked in the bliss of God." Rationally I know that I went through a conversion. But as I write this miracle of my life, such a simple statement is unfair. Paraphrasing Eckhart, I somehow saw all in all, and stood above mere understanding. I could rationalize about my psychological "objective" need for it, and I could see how my subconscious "tricked" me into the conversion experience. Yet my conviction about the realness of my encounter with my father is unshaken. It was his doing, his guidance, in a very literal sense, not my psyche's performance.
As a neuropsychiatrist and a Transylvanian Unitarian, I too could have dismissed this as merely a reassuring dream. But this type of psychological reductionism is not of interest in this study. What is of interest to me as a physician and person of faith is the avoidance of rigid physicalist reductionism and a related dilemma to which I now turn.
Some Neuropsychological Correlations
Glowing in a blissful state, with an expanded sense of limitless possibility and creative urge, overwhelming compassion and love, and being convinced about God’s intense presence in my life, I was “complimented” by a neurologist colleague with this remark: “You are lucky, your brain chemicals keep you happy.” As a neurologist myself, I knew the scientific truth in that statement, yet I revolted against such a reductionistic view. At that time and in an atheistic, communist society in which I lived, any claim of “God-presence” was embarrassing. However the desire to be true to the source of my inner harmony and sense of elation remained foremost. Not having an appropriate explanation that would do justice to my scientific training and my numinous experience, I was compelled into a tormenting dilemma: was it God or just my brain chemicals?
Now I will attempt to analyze these two cases of uninvited mystical experiences--illustrated by some of my personal experiences which are seemingly identical with my father’s--in the light of neuropsychology and neurobiology. I will draw heavily from current understandings set forth by the works of Persinger, Wildman and Brothers, and Andresen.
Michael Persinger's phenomenological contribution in exploring the role of the temporal lobe in "God experiences" is central to my present quest as much as Wildman and Brothers’ notion of "discrete ultimacy experiences"--transient and emotionally charged experiences. According to Persinger and others, religious experiences can be evoked by transient and discrete electric microseizures in the deep structures of the temporal lobes, which Persinger called temporal lobe transients. The temporal lobe, the amygdala, hyppocampus, and corresponding cortical areas, are responsible for characteristic clinical symptoms, personality features, and experiences, such as space-time distortion, “morning highs,” a sense of intense meaningfulness and boundless possibility, intensely elated memories of parents as god-figures, vivid experience of a divine presence, a predisposition to religious conversion and openness, and a range of rich religious experiences of ultimacy from sublime to dramatic--to mention just those which my own personal experience seem to confirm.
Persinger’s association of these God experiences exclusively with temporal lobe anomalies, was corrected by Patrick McNamara, who has demonstrated the overarching role of the frontal lobes in the cognitive components of religiosity. He even suggests that “it is much more accurate to explain religiosity in [temporal] epileptics as an attempt by the frontal lobes to re-establish control over a disintegrating temporal lobe.” Ultimacy experiences are much more likely to be supported by complex interactions between the temporal and frontal lobes, in which the frontal lobes play the role of the “conductor.” Or, neurophysiologically speaking, mystical experiences activate frontal lobes. This activation is accompanied by profound emotions, which enhance the experience and its memory in the temporal lobes through an abundant release of adrenaline. The research of McNamara shifted the emphasis to the frontal lobe functions, concerning emotions and religiosity. The encounter with the counterintuitive of the religious realm raises extraordinarily strong emotions. Mystical experience, because of its experiential feel or qualia (its strong emotional coloring and evocative nature) and because of the seriousness of these experiences, is capable of producing unshakable perceptions about the nature of both the personal experience and the "reality" in which it is set. My belief about the reality of my encounter with my father illustrates this point. My experience of bliss and unity while experiencing the presence of my dead father--neurobiologically speaking--was the result of a “maximum stimulation of the ergotropic and trophotropic systems with deafferentation of both posterior superior parietal lobule (PSPL),” as Andersen described.
Two observations seem warranted at this point: that neuropsychology is very new and many of its conclusions are being corrected daily, and that there is no map or general theory to correlate experiences of mind and body. Similarly, the philosophical/theological disputes over the primacy of matter/spirit, numina/phenomena have been renewed in a debate between neuropsychology and theology over issues of mind/brain/body primacy. Persinger offers a neuroscientifically plausible yet alarmingly reductionistic explanation. Wildman and Brothers--as well as Murphy and Clayton--have, however, provided a balancing perspective from theology.
Although it is interesting and inevitable that we learn about the neural basis of religious experience from clinical pathology, in the view of “non-reductive physicalism,” mental processes will never be adequately accounted for by neurophysiological analyses. Watts, in his notion of “perspectivalism,” stated that “as cognitive neuroscience gains increasing understanding of the cognitive and neural processes subserving religious consciousness, it will probably become clear which brain processes are particularly involved in people coming to think in ways that are in tune with God. However, this need not lead us to ask whether religious experience is caused by the brain or by God.” Theology, Watts argues, opposes a “choice” between God or nature as the source or cause of the experience; God would be utterly reduced to one of many possible causes. My encounter-with-my-father experience brought about conversion, the first, spectacular phase of a character transformation. The next, not less dramatic experience while receiving the Pope John Paul II’s parental blessing, meant a second phase of the conversion process, a numinous awakening to the quest, What my life is about? The revelatory answer was "service." I had a dazzlingly clear sense of an imperative to dedicate my life to service. It was an ethical-mystical experience, as deeply transformative as my first one when my faith was reborn. This transformation, in its ethical content, corresponds Kierkegaard’s “second stage” of self-transcendence.
Neuropsychological Processes and Mystical Experience
I return now to some of the neuropsychological bases of mystical, ultimacy experiences. The neurological substratum of ultimacy experiences is the activation--spontaneous or induced--of the medial and anterior temporal lobes, involving the hypothalamus, the amygdala and hippocampus regions. It is a well-known neurological phenomenon of patients suffering from temporal epilepsy, having complex sensory alteration episodes as accompanying symptoms, also called seizure "equivalents"--cognitive, affective, or psychosensory symptoms. Some of the most common are olfactory and visual hallucination, floating sensation, perception of distortions of shapes and size of objects, disturbances of time perception with a sense of "derealization," as if the world were not real, and spectacular cognitive experiences where memory is involved: the déja-vu, déja-vécu or its opposite, jamais-vu, jamais-vécu episodes. Often these are the only manifestations of temporal epilepsy, without any seizure. Or, these phenomena constitute the aura of the seizure. Since the anterior poles of the temporal lobes are the most vulnerable, most exposed to discrete traumatizations throughout life--and the cortex of the temporal poles are often atrophied--these temporal "events" are more frequent forms of epilepsy. Some of the aura-phenomena occur without epilepsy ever being diagnosed. Another characteristic of the temporal lobe region is its extremely low threshold for spontaneous seizures.
I now briefly reproduce the neuropsychological processes described by Wildman and Brothers to serve as a theoretical background to my own clinical observations during my thirty years of migraine headaches and accompanying psychosensory symptoms.
The amygdala receives and projects incoming sensory information to the hypothalamus and brainstem centers, and, at the same time, to a widespread cortical area of the temporal lobes. The stimulation of the amygdala results in certain somatic and emotional events, such as anxiety and stress signs with their characteristic somatic expressions. Because the hippocampus is adjacent to the amygdala and plays a key role in memory processes and emotions, the interruption in the encoding of incoming events result in short mnemonic episodes, such as the déja-vu. Also, the patient can feel extreme emotional states from elation and ecstasy to rage and terror. The hippocampus matches the current impulses with already encoded material, which could have been falsely created, and thus is responsible for phenomena such as derealization, sense of familiarity (the déja-vu) or unfamiliarity (the jamais-vu experience). In severe temporal cortex atrophies, the so-called "semantic dementia" occurs. Or, in schizophrenic patients the opposite occurs: the "hyperfunctionality" of the semantic memory produces spectacular systems of belief in delusions.
Wildman and Brothers speculate that "the conviction of reality depends on a process of global semantic matching that takes place in the temporal lobes." The brain interprets incoming experiences in a social linguistic context; the first step in processing ultimacy experience is also the process of global matching, a component process of learning--via the hippocampus and the neocortex. Once the hippocampus is activated by an event, the data travels from the neocortex to the hippocampus and, for storage, it gets compressed, forming a "summary sketch" of the information. Hippocampal connections also travel extensively to other areas or temporal regions, giving rise to already described secondary, associating phenomena. In the hippocampal-neocortex interaction the data is being matched in a global level: "Is this event consistent with all I know?" When the new event doesn't match our previous information system, we experience it as "unreal," usually as a brief, transient episode. In a pathological situation when the matching is falsely affirmative, the experience is being incorporated into the global semantic network, giving a "real" aspect to the absurd or unusual. In the opposite case, the person has the derealization experience. Mesulam's dissociative disorder is a more complex pathology of the above-described phenomena, leading to dissociative personality disorders. In this case the affected region is the anterior temporal cortex, and thus the global matching process is being affected.
In the case of discrete experiences of ultimacy, an attempt to match the unusual experience with the global matching network of the experiencer can be accepted or rejected. In the latter case, the experience will be branded "not real" and will lack the sense of ultimacy. For ultimacy, another component is necessary: the "conviction" James insisted upon. Based on same cortical-subcortical mechanism and matching, conviction formation can also occur anomalously.
In the global matching process--decompression, interaction with stored information in other cortical areas, assimilation of new material--the person's "religious experience" can be preceded by a complex of sensory experience, like a hallucination which induces a "revision" of its reality. The perception of reality, if it happens on the person-world-divine level, results in a "heightened sense of intellectual perception," and the novelty of the experience produces a sense of joy and pleasure, a desired "fit" for the person undergoing conversion.
Deep personality changes as interictal phenomena--"interictal personality"--are almost always present in chronic temporal epilepsy cases. Besides viscosity and tendency to paranoid attitude, religious fixed ideas, delusions with mystical-cosmological grandeur, and religious conversions are among those. I found these most common in my 15-year-long medical practice. David Bear's theory of the interictal personality changes is what he calls "sensory limbic hyperconnection." It means that pathological synoptic connections--lowering the threshold of the temporal lobes to stimuli--make the patient became "sensitized" and react automatically and selectively to different images.
There remains a further question: How does our mind reveal the transcendent dimension in a dream state? According to Lakoff and Johnson, in our dreams the high-level motor programs of our brains can remain active and connected to our visual systems while their input to our muscles is inhibited. We cognitively can simulate movements, which results in the “feel” of movement without moving. Or, through the visual system of our brains, we can “see” images based on input which doesn’t come from our retinas. This enables us to be spectators and participants in the fascinating, creative “show” of our own neuro-microcosm.
Migraines and Mysteries
With that much theoretical foundation, I will clinically analyze--as a case study--my own experiences of which now I have a better phenomenological and neurological understanding. I suffered from severe and frequent--sometimes weekly--migraine headaches for three decades. The migraine episodes shared some of the above-described associating phenomena of temporal epilepsy, although in subtle forms. My aura always included an olfactory "hallucination" of an intense chlorine smell, especially in drinking water. Chlorine was actually present in the water, but the aura augmented its smell. I occasionally had fleeting episodes of form and size distortion of objects. An emotional component manifested in a post-migraine state of an ecstatic sense of well-being--a kind of rush (like one produced by an excess of endorphin). The overall emotional charge of my migraine attacks, in spite of the suffering, was strangely positive, for I remembered only the liberating joy and overwhelming sense of health of the aftermath. After having studied the role of the frontal lobes in the perception of health and well-being, on which I will reflect shortly, now I know that my frontal lobes were also responsible for my "corrective" perception.
My objective reason to compare the migraine with temporal epilepsy, besides relevant clinical symptoms, is the feature of my EEG. During the peak of the migraine, my electro-encephalogram showed the patterns of a temporal epileptic seizure discharges--synchron-symmetric, generalized activity. This made me hypothesize that my migraines, as well as my many patients’ similar pathology, were borderline phenomena between migraine and epilepsy. The aura itself and its similar qualities to that of an epileptic aura also support this theory. The EEG seemed to confirm it. I also hypothesize that my brain pathology contributed to my spectacular, short-term mystical experiences and my long-term character transformation of a multilevel conversion process. It is anecdotally known that persons with chronic headaches have had vivid mystical experiences. And, once the headache was cured, the experiences ceased.
I haven't had migraine headaches for many years now, but I have had certain episodes which I consider as "migraine equivalents." Recently I had a transient blindness which I diagnosed as "ophthalmic migraine" without headache, followed by another episode, which spectacularly illustrated the pathology of global matching theory. I experienced what the d’Aquili called "derealization" along with mnemonic insecurity. In the midst of daily activity, suddenly I was inundated with commanding memories of a recent dream which intruded into my present as reality. Rich and bizarre in content, I tried to discern rationally what was dream and what reality. Under these memories the present began to fade, dissolve into a sense of non-reality, dreamlike floating in between the two "realities." Like in a seizure, my mental presence and rational capacity was affected, and in spite of my rational struggle to hang on to "reality," I knew that I was not entirely in charge. There was a certain automatism in my thoughts and actions, and the self-observation and interpretation of my own brain's malfunction fascinated me.
Personality changes--in my case, a consistent deepening of my religiosity and inner peace--do not occur only in isolation, but most of the time in social settings. On a neurological level, socialization involves, besides the amygdala, the prefrontal areas and the orbito-frontal cortex. The role of the temporal lobes has been more thoroughly researched. But the frontal lobes' role is still a relatively uncharted area.
In a recent study at Boston University (BU Medical Center and School of Theology) we hypothesized that the beneficial effects of religiosity on health are mediated by neurocognitive systems of the frontal lobes. We found that subjects with both high frontal function scores and high religiosity scores evidenced significantly better health outcomes and a sense of enhanced well-being than subjects with only high frontal performance or high religiosity scores. One of the many hypothetical explanations is the frontal lobes’ role in mediating positive psychological functions, such as optimism, hope, sense of meaning and resilience.
In Terrence Deacon's theory, the functions of the prefrontal cortex are crucial to the acquisition of symbols and the organization of attention to incoming stimuli--and ultimately, in socialization and the storage of the acquired semantic categories. Imitation and spread of certain behaviors among members of the group are possible through the frontal lobes’ conducting and coordinating role. The frontal lobes mediate in neuroprocesses involved in religious fervor--augmented by group participation, a characteristic phenomena of pilgrimages.
In this essay I took up the task of a "first-person report" of my mystical experiences--short and spectacular, as well as transformative in the long-term--with an attempt at a phenomenological, neuropsychological, and ethical/theological analysis. As a neuropsychiatrist and also a sufferer from severe migraine headaches for three decades, I self-observed the epiphenomena (confirmed by EEG) of my migraines and migraine equivalents--discrete temporal lobe transients, which translated into disorders of the temporal “global semantic matching.” I think that my discrete temporal anomaly is correlated with my predisposition for mystical experiences.
On another level, I compared my “ultimacy experiences” with seemingly similar ones of my father, a martyr of communist persecutions in Eastern Europe, who also suffered from migraine headaches for a lifetime. Since he made only a succinct recounting of his mystical experiences while still alive, now I have attempted to reconstruct them from one of his poems, which I translated from Hungarian. In the analysis of the poem, I focused mainly on the semantics of paradox, characteristic of the language of mysticism.
Having two, radically different interpretative approaches of my experiences, the cognitive scientific and the theological, my dilemma arises: Do I need to choose between them in order to appreciate properly their effect upon me, namely, the numinous awakening to life's meaning?
Which is the source of my mystical experiences--God or my brain chemicals? Is my feeling of blessedness, zest for life, sense of limitless possibility, the overwhelming love for God and humanity caused by the Ultimate in me, or is it simply the result of “maximum stimulation of the ergotropic and trophotropic systems with deafferentation of bilateral posterior superior parietal lobules?” When cutting-edge cognitive science has provided convincing scientific evidence through neurobiology and neuropsychology for a plausible explanation of my experiences of ultimacy, I cannot afford to ignore this evidence. Yet it feels threatening that these explanations will eventually explain away my precious experiences of the transcendent. It seems “dangerous” to ask what “the truth” is. Can two opposing and equally convincing and powerful truths coexist and be reconciled? Will--in the newly enlightened understanding of embodied religiosity--prayer become utilitarian, merely a means to activate my frontal lobes in order to evoke emotions of bliss and serenity, which then improve my health? “Help yourself first, before God helps you” is an ancient Transylvanian saying. Activate your frontal lobes first, then God will honor your effort. Is this our spiritual future?
Yes and no. I personally need both the bliss of experiencing the non-embodied One, but I also need and want the blessings of the intellectual enlightenment. In this rich double-rootedness, what I propose is to avoid physical reductionism of the ultimate.
My typical reaction initially was a sense of threat to “my” God posed by scientific revelations of the biological mechanisms underlying my God experience--Wildman and Brothers’ notion of “ultimacy experience.” But after passing the threshold which seemingly separated the “world of God” and the “world of science,” I discovered the vast richness of life, and I gained an ever deepening sense of appreciation for it. The threat is no longer. God is not my brain’s creation, but my brain makes God “accessible” for me. The scientist in me is fascinated to find the answer to the how quest? We are part of nature. If we admire a butterfly or the lilies of the fields, how much more the awe and sense of blessedness awakens in us when we see the marvelous microcosm of our own brain! My knowledge is divine gift rather than a threat to my faith. It enriches the awareness of life’s extended dimensions rather than takes away from it. If one feels threatened by the illumination of science, it is perhaps because of one’s insecurity in one’s faith.
There is no incompatibility between my God experience and my self-understanding of it. Communism brainwashed us scientists: it was an “either-or,” a commitment to religion or to science. Reconciling the two in an ideologically manipulated world was unthinkable. Now freedom’s precious gift is also an intellectual freedom: one can research scientifically, in reverence for life, awe toward God. “We are not forced to choose between a blunt realism about ultimacy and a hermeneutical disengagement from reality” And the more we penetrate through our knowledge the veil of the microcosm of our nervous system in its miraculous complexity, the more grounded we become in our relationship with the ground of Being.
By virtue of having a marvelously sophisticated nervous system, I am able to have the richest, the most complex experience--that of the ultimate. Through my “free radicals” of longing for the transcendent dimension of life, I connect, I tap into a “God consciousness,” I become aware of the indescribable, unnamable, unimaginable divinity, the eternal--Tillich’s “ground of Being”-- yet experienced as “present” in me, “loving” me, changing me. Not as an intentional “Being” but as a reflection of It in my being--thus making me a “drop” of the divine. My experience is that reflection of the One who is beyond existence, and who has no other way to reveal Godself to me, a creature in time and space and part of nature, than through my own biological makeup, through my wondrous neuropsyche.
Will the awareness of, the insight into, the mechanisms of the experience diminish the experience? I think it rather enhances it. It is impossible to glimpse the depth of creation and the wonder of the neurobiological processes--which ultimately enable us to glimpse--without a deep sense of awe and admiration for creation. And even conditions I had analyzed, such as my own discrete temporal malfunctions that increase my susceptibility for ultimacy experiences, do not diminish the experience. Knowing and naming the vehicle, the triggerer, the enhancer of it, won’t discredit it, because my quest is no longer focused on the cause of the experience, but rather on its transformative effect on my reality.
I no longer particularly worry about what exactly was the cause of my experiences--an intentional God or neurobiological circumstances. What helped me was my giving up viewing my experience in an ontologically direct cause-effect manner. What matters is the value of the experience in my life, which has been changed dramatically by those experiences, toward an ethical and emotional growth. Giving up the rigid causal commitment in favor of the empirical aspect of the experience, “delegitimates the debates about whether or not real contact with some sort of Ultimate occurs in religious experiences.”
My experience that I have recounted, phenomenologically viewed, might count for a true “experience of ultimacy,” or just for a dream, the results perhaps of intermittent temporal microseizures; psychoanalytically perceived, it might have been an attempt of my psyche to “undo” the trauma of my father’s death, “reinventing” his presence through complex experiences, or might reflect a tendency of regression to the infantile longing for security. Theologically and ethically considered, my conversion experience would correspond to the second stage of Kierkegaard’s ethical transformation. The value of knowing the mechanism of induction of such experiences leads to the possibility of utilizing techniques of the sacred to facilitate positive experiences, making ourselves more open and “vulnerable” toward being touched by God.
Other cultures, especially of the East, have much greater capacity to cross the borders between the physical realm and the realm of the transcendent. Having no God-concept similar to mine as a theist, Tibetan Buddhists, for example, “know” the spirit world and have past-life memories, which are quite natural for them. They have cultivated their receptivity toward different dimensions of reality. The cognitional functions of structurally similar brains reflect the imprints of a different cultural-religious training. Neurophysiology and neurobiology can only “substantiate” the physical happenings, which show no “Eastern” specificity, yet the undetectable dimension, their ultimacy experiences and their relationship to them is perhaps radically different from those of Westerners. Like the language which will mold and activate the pristine brain of a newborn, so does the “language” of the mystical experience, determining the ways of the brain in discerning the transcendental dimensions of the same biological life. My experience of “meeting” my father--or his spirit--was extraordinary for me, while for a Tibetan Buddhist, it would, perhaps be an “ordinary” experience. Yet the numinous and life-transforming, life-shaping character of the experience would probably be present in both cases.
My experiences are relevant in the extent they are meaningful to me in a semiotic sense. I am she who reads my meaning into them. This allows both a relative neutrality and a subjective engagement that grants the benefit from my experiences to the fullest, toward my spiritual health and growth.
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Gellérd Imre, A sas. Translated from Hungarian by Judit Gellérd.
Imre Gellérd has died as a martyr of communist persecutions in Eastern Europe.
F. Samuel Brainard, "Defining 'Mystical Experience'" in Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXIV/2.
Jensine Andresen, “Introduction: Towards a Cognitive Science of Religion” in Religion in Mind. Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Beleif, Ritual, and Experience, edited by J. Andresen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 13.
J. Andresen, op.cit., 28.
Stace, W. T., Mysticism and Philosophy, (Philadelphia: Lippicott, 1960).
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experiece (New York: Random House, 1902), 202.
Predigt 39 DW 2:253-55.
Marvin C. Shaw, op. cit., 5.
Viktor E. Frankl, The Will to Meaning, Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York: World Publishing, 1969), 70.
Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, an Introduction to Logotherapy, rev. ed. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), 178.
Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994) 2.
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, translated with and Introduction by D.C. Lau (Penguin, 1963), Book 1:1.
W. T. Stace, op. cit., 301.
Sells, op. cit., 8.
Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1954) 349.
Wesley J. Wildman & Leslie A. Brothers, "A Neuropsychological-Semiotic Model of Religious Experiences" in Neuroscience and the Person. Scientific Perspective on Divine Action. Ed. by Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, Theo C. Meyering, Michael A. Arbib. (Vatican City State and Berkeley, CA: Vatican Observatory Publications and Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1999) 350.
Stace, op. cit., 303.
I was certified as a medical doctor in both neurology and psychiatry in Hungary.
Wildman and Brothers, op. cit., 357.
J. Andresen, op. cit., 269.
P. McNamara, “Religion and the Frontal Lobes” in Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Belief, Ritual, and Experience, ed. by J. Andresen, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 271.
Andresen, op. cit. 264.
Eugene G. d'Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), and Wildman, loc. cit.
Participating in a research team of neurologists in Budapest, I found ample evidence for it.
Wildman and Brothers, op. cit., 366-9.
Periods between epileptic seisures, or ictus.
G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1998) 575.
Patrick McNamara, Jensine Andresen, Judit Gellerd, "Religiosity and Health in Community Dwelling Elderly: Possible Role of the Frontal Lobes in Mediating Effects of Religiosity on Health." (under publication in Journal of Gerontology).
Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: Norton, 1997).
Wildman and Brothers, op. cit., 402.