Thursday, October 6, 2016

Producing Prayer's Perceptions II

Feelings of spiritual transcendence and oneness with God and/or the universe can be attributed to a purely physiological phenomenon. There is a region of the brain that neuroscientists call the orientation association area (OAA) that orients us in physical space. It is this area that controls our perception of ourselves in relation to the objects around us and differentiates between "me" and "not me." People with damage to this part of the brain have trouble navigating through even familiar spaces, and will frequently bump into things that a typical person will easily avoid.

It has been found that meditation and some drugs can cause activity in the OAA to decrease. As its function of differentiating between a person and the rest of the world  decreases, the person feels a sense of connection to things outside himself. Damage to the OAA, in addition to bumping into things, can cause people to spontaneously experience feelings of spiritual transcendence. 

This is a physiological explanation for the feelings people may experience during davening. Davening is a form of meditation, and can at times cause the OAA to go into hibernation. The spiritual feelings people experience are likely not the result of a connection with the divine, but are the result of a malfunction in the brain that blurs the boundaries between "me" and "not me."


  1. Maybe Hashem designed our brains with this OAA region in this way, so that it would have this functionality: ie. so that we could feel close to him.

    1. If there is a God, then maybe He did - though if He did, this is an odd, work-around sort of way to go about inducing feelings of closeness to Him.

      The point, though, is not that there is a physiological explanation, therefore it's not God. The point is that feelings of God can be explained by a purely physical process that doesn't rely on His presence, therefore those feelings cannot be used as proof that God is causing them and therefore must be real.

    2. I agree that you can't use these feelings as proof of anything supernatural.

      But, for the sake of argument, given that our body is a physical thing, how else would a divine being make us feel close to him? A tingling feeling in our skin? Anything that we feel must eventually be traced down to some physical part of our nervous system, so it's hard (for me, at least) to think of anything that would not classify as an 'odd, work-around sort of way'.

      Again, I'm not saying you can prove either way whether it is Hashem who is initiating these feelings, but it's easy to imagine the orthodox response to this: if you start from the assumption that Hashem is out there and can interact with us, then this is just elaborating how Hashem is doing it. Perhaps analogous to evolution -- instead of refuting the story of creation in the torah, it just becomes 'how' Hashem did it.

    3. It's a work around because it's not a God detector in the way that our eyes are photon detectors or our ears are vibration detectors. Instead it's something that normally functions to distinguish ourselves from everything else in our schema of the world, and it is only by shutting it off partially that we "detect" God.

      Like evolution, adding God to the story is an unnecessary complication. Either suppression of the OAA is a physiological phenomena that causes feelings of connection to the Divine, or suppression of the OAA is a physiological phenomena that causes feelings of connection to the Divine AND God is causing the person to feel connected to Him.

      I agree with you about the likely religious response, and of course there is no way to prove absolutely that God didn't design us this way. But 1. I'm making a limited point about the veracity of personal experiences of the divine as a form of proof, and 2. As I just said, it's an unnecessary complication and, if God designed it into us, He's a lousy designer.

  2. This is your first post in a while so I thought I'd comment.

    Whilst our viewpoints haven't always been the same in the past, I have always considered everything you've written carefully, and reckon you as an intelligent and valuable voice in the bloggosphere. And over time I find myself agreeing with you more and more.

    Now onto my main point. I want to encourage you to continue writing. You're one of the last blogs left standing in the Jewish skeptosphere, and I feel you provide a valuable service in 2 ways.

    Firstly you highlight that there are intellectual reasons to reject Judaism. You show that mature and normal adults may stop believing in God even after they have finished Yeshivah and are married. That stands in direct contrast to the usual image of otd children who are misunderstood and have big yetser horohs.
    Secondly it helps others with intellectual questions find a (virtual) community to support them. This makes a huge difference to how they feel and can literally change their lives.

    Also I just enjoy reading your blog.
    Wishing you a great new year.

  3. @G*3 First I would like to second Yavoy's comment. Second, many ancient peoples (uhumm, and some moderns) have used various substances (mushrooms, plants...) for spiritual purposes. One is also reminded of that special smoke in the Beis Hamikdash. And music and ecstasies associated with prophecy.