(The 'God Helmet' tested by Michael Shermer)
Here’s an example that potentially provides a scientific explanation for mystical experiences such as out of body experiences, but not without the help of EEG technology (there’s also a link to Q4 in that the example also turns on neuroscientific knowledge about our ‘sense of who we are’.)
Dr Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist has come up with a testable hypothesis which goes some way towards explaining the nature of some kinds of religious belief like near death experiences. The hypothesis is based on the idea that all human experience stems from electrical activity in the brain which is also the seat of our ‘sense of who we are’. Persinger utilises a modified motorcycle helmet to stimulate particular electromagnetic field patterns in a subject’s brain which create ‘micro seizures’ in the temporal lobe area which in turn appear to cause ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ experiences such as the feeling of being outside the body, or sensing a presence in the room.
Working on the assumption that our ‘sense of self’ is maintained by the left hemisphere of the temporal cortex of the brain and in normal circumstances this is a function of the harmony between the systems of the left and right hemisphere temporal cortices, Persinger argues that the ‘micro seizures’ put these hemispheres out of phase with each other. During such an event, the left hemisphere interprets this out of phase activity as ‘sensed presence’ or ‘another self’ outside of the body: or a ‘God experience’ (it isn’t surprising that the technology has become known as the ‘God helmet’)
What are the limits of this knowledge?
For science: if we can measure accurately the electrical wave patterns in the brain when, for example, we experience drinking wine, we can record and replicate this pattern in another brain so as to give another person the same experience. Of course, the hypothesis becomes more interesting if we consider that using the helmet, we can, in principle, give a non-believer in spiritual experiences a first hand experience of the Divine...
For religion: if we can explain God in terms of electrical patterns in the brain, then ‘God’ presumably becomes a man made projection which we can draw upon at will or not at all if we so choose...