Friday, March 13, 2009

The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences

A very interesting and geeky look at the neuroscience of "paranormal experience" from The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

Interestingly, at least to me, the very first sentence of the paper acknowledges its flatland view of human consciousness - it's all brain chemistry and electrical impulses. There can't possibly be anything more.

To me this is a sadly unimaginative perspective to hold. I don't know that there is anything called God or not (at least nothing the human mind can truly comprehend), but I have a strong suspicion that there is more to consciousness than electricity and chemicals.

Be that as it may, this is an interesting article.

The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences

Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Address correspondence to Dr. Persinger, Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada P3E 2C6. E-mail:

Key Words: Paranormal Experiences


From the perspective of modern neuroscience all behaviors and all experiences are created by the dynamic matrix of chemical and electromagnetic events within the human brain. Paranormal experiences might be considered a subset of these neurogenic processes. Experiences that are labeled as or attributed to paranormal phenomena 1) are frequently dominated by a sensed presence, 2) appear to involve the acquisition of information from distances beyond those normally obtained by the classical senses, and 3) imply distortions in physical time.1

Most paranormal experiences have negative affective themes with emphasis on some aspect of death to others or dissolution of the self. Experiences concerning death or crisis to others are reported to occur predominantly at night, particularly between 2:00 and 4:00 A.M. The sensed presence is also more common during this nocturnal period. We2 have suggested that the hourly incidence of temporal lobe seizures (data collected in the late nineteenth century by W. P. Spratling before medication was available) and the circadian distribution of sensed presences attributed to paranormal sources reflect a shared source of variance within the human brain.

If structure dictates function and microstructure within the brain determines or directs microfunction, then one would expect classes of experiences to be associated with specific regions of the brain or the patterns of activity generated within these areas. Both the occurrence of paranormal experiences and their rates of incidence are associated with specific types of neuronal activity within the temporal lobes. This linkage does not verify the validity of the content of the experiences but simply indicates that specific patterns of activity within the temporal lobes and related structures are associated with the experiences. The sources of the stimuli that evoke the neuroelectrical changes may range from properties intrinsic to chaotic activity, with minimal veridicality, to external information that is processed by mechanisms not known to date.

That patients who display complex partial seizures with foci within the temporal lobes, particularly the amygdala and hippocampus, report more frequent paranormal-like experiences has been known for decades. Distortions in subjective time, the sensed presence of another sentient being, out-of-body experiences, and even religious reveries have occurred during spontaneous seizures.3 Direct surgical stimulation of mesiobasal structures within the temporal lobes, particularly the right hemisphere, has been shown to evoke comparable experiences. As emphasized by Horowitz and Adams,4 the experiences during stimulation are not just memories, but enhancements or vivifications of the class of ongoing experiences (perceptions, thoughts, or memories) at the time of the stimulation.

There appears to be a continuum of temporal lobe sensitivity along which all human beings are distributed. Normal individuals who are highly sensitive, as defined by above-average numbers of responses to Persinger and Makarec's Personal Philosophy Inventory5 or above-normal scores on Roberts'6 inventory for Epileptic Spectrum Disorder, report more types of paranormal experiences as well as more frequent paranormal experiences. The correlation coefficients between the numbers of different paranormal experiences and scores for temporal lobe sensitivity, as inferred from responses to clusters of items from these inventories, range between 0.5 and 0.9. Individuals who have elevated scores for these inventories also show more prominent alpha rhythms over the temporal lobes7 and display elevated but not necessarily abnormal scores for the eccentric thinking and hypomania scales of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.8

Like patients who display complex partial seizures and limbic epilepsy, normal people with elevated numbers of temporal lobe experiences show variants of interictal behavioral patterns. The propensity to infuse sensory experience with enhanced meaning, presumably associated with more electrically labile amygdaloid functions, results in more frequent experiences of deep and even cosmic personal significance in response to infrequent or odd events.9 The convictions that the experient has been selected by some universal force, has a particular purpose in life, and must spread the message (often with unstoppable viscosity) are remarkably common themes. From this perspective the deep personal or emotional significance of a paranormal experience is a predictable property of a labile amygdala processing unusual perceptual events.

Paranormal beliefs and paranormal experiences are related. There is a moderate to strong positive correlation between the proportions of paranormal experiences that people report and their beliefs in the paranormal phenomena.10 Interestingly, paranormal beliefs appear to be substitutes for traditional religious beliefs. People who endorse the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence as the source for UFOs and the reality of reincarnation are less likely to accept traditional beliefs in the second coming of Christ or to agree to kill in God's name.
Read the whole paper.

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