TAVIS L ALLISON Persinger + Mystical Experience Please bear with me if I am posting to a d

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

TAVIS L ALLISON Persinger + Mystical Experience Organization: UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS at AMHERST From: TALLISON@UCSVAX.UCS.UMASS.EDU (TAVIS L ALLISON) Message-ID: <2a63nr$orn@nic.umass.edu> Newsgroups: sci.psychology Please bear with me if I am posting to a defunct or exhausted thread; I hope to be able to add something new. Michael Persinger's work can be divided into three main themes: 'straight' neuro-science research, usually with animal models; articles connecting geomagnetic forces to reports of UFO's, apparitions, and mystical experiences; and work based on his general hypothesis of mystical experience. This last area of research was the subject of the original post, but most of the comments on the net (and, as near as I can tell, all of the published criticism) have focused on the geomagnetic hypothesis. Persinger's theory of mystical experience was first published in _Perceptual and Motor Skills_ in 1983. (1) He introduced it to larger audiences in 1987 via his book _Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs_ and an article in the _Journal of General Psychology_. (2) The main claims of the hypothesis are: Mystical experience is caused by a a microseizure in the limbic system- Persinger calls it a _temporal lobe transient_. Any condition that facilitates such experiences, from kneeling in church to ritual dancing to hallucinogens, does so because it alters the temporal lobe in a way that makes these 'transients' more likely to occur. (This, as I understand it, is the link to Persinger's other line of research, as geomagnetic activity is supposed to have such an effect.). The tendency to have mystical experiences, and the tendency to have religious beliefs, are correlated with a neurological instability in the temporal lobes, which gets worse with each mystical experience and religious ritual due to conditioning and a kindling effect. Thus, religion is essentially pathological, and those with religious faith are biologically less capable of logical reasoning, creative thought, etc., etc. than those who do not (i.e. Persinger; reading his book makes it clear that this last claim has much to do with his own personal bias.) Persinger's hypothesis of mystical experience in the general population is derived from his claims about a group of people with clinical instability in the temporal lobes, or temporal lobe epileptics. He speaks of a 'continuum of temporal lobe lability', from people with TLE, to non-epileptics who report religious experiences, to those with no religious tendencies whatsoever. People with overt seizures arising in the temporal lobe, Persinger says, experience phenomena similar to those of the mystical experience, such as hearing voices or seeing visions, in the aura 'preceding' the seizure (the ictal phase). And, in between seizures (interictally), these people have more mystical experiences and have more extreme religious beliefs. Both of these ideas are part of a stereotype of the epileptic that is as old as ancient Greece, but Persinger gets them from its most modern proponent, Norman Geschwind. In 1973, Waxman and Geschwind's "The Interictal Behavior Syndrome of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy" (3) suggested (based on the authors' clinical experience) that a characteristic set of personality changes were caused by the epileptic activity in the temporal lobe. The change Persinger was most concerned with they called 'hyperreligiosity'. In 1977, Bear and Fedio published a study of TLE inpatients that appeared to experimentally demonstrate this syndrome. When it was published, Persinger's hypothesis was an audacious extension into the general population of potentially valid ideas about TLE. Since then, continued research has supported the first of PersingerSs claims about TLE, but seriously questioned the second, and thus (because it demolishes the 'continuum of temporal lobe lability') his entire hypothesis. It has recently been shown that not only individual elements of the mystical experience, but a 'classic' religious vision, can be produced by the initial stages of a temporal lobe seizure. A number of case reports of mystical seizure auras have appeared in the literature; one even took an EEG recording of the seizure and confirmed (post-mortem) that the seizure focus was in the temporal lobe. (4) However, researchers began to have trouble replicating the second claim- that people with TLE have more mystical experieces and are more religious- almost immediately after Bear and Fedio published their study. In almost a dozen studies, temporal lobe epileptics have generally not been shown to score higher on measures of 'religiosity' than people with other neurological or psychiatric disorders, ordisabling physical illness, or even healthy control subjects. Perhaps the best of these studies was done by Sensky et al. in 1984 (5); their acknowledgement that mystical experience and belief are separate variables, and their use of measures validated in the study of religious phenomenon among the general population, is all too unique. Despite their methodological sophistication, they too found no effect of TLE on either variable. Persinger turned out to be half right. In this, he's fared better than Arnold Mandell, whose hypothesis denied the existence of mystical seizure auras- justifiably, given the anecdotal and controversial evidence for them at the time- as well as depending on the claimed interictal changes in religiosity. Mandell's paper (6) is much more neuroscientifically rigorous, however, and still worth reading for its impressive array of biochemical data and reasoning. Although it was published in 1980, three years before Persinger's hypothesis, and touches on many of the same issues, Persinger has never cited Mandell's work. In fact, as a rule Persinger has not cited any of the post-1983 evidence mentioned above, neither the favorable nor the unfavorable. (The exception to this rule is a 1984 review of the interictal literature by Hermann and Whitman which he cites in support of his hypothesis, despite the authors' predominantly negative conclusion.) Yet he has published at least one paper on this topic almost every year since 1983, and has done a number of studies that show significant links between mystical experience, religiosity, and measures of temporal lobe instability among college students etc., despite the failure to do the same among epileptics. Much of this may have to do with the fact that all these studies use a questionnaire that he has designed himself, the Personal Philosophy Inventory. The PPI has one cluster of questions designed to analyze 'sense of (spiritual) presence' and another 'Complex Partial Epileptic Sign' cluster meant to measure temporal lobe instability by asking about experiences meant to be less intense versions of seizure auras. Neither cluster resembles the questions used by other researchers. The CPES cluster chooses a highly idiosyncratic set of 'ictal' experiences, based on PersingerUs ideas about amygdaloid function ('Sometimes an event occurs that has special significance for me only') and the epileptic personality ('I use "hunches" more than simple learning to solve new problems'). Validation of this measure by testing it on people with TLE would seem to be especially important because it is so unusual, but no such study appeared until 1993 (7), ten years after the original hypothesis and a year after I read this literature, so I can't comment on its results. Regardless of the validity of each measure, the oft-found correlation between the two can at least partially be explained on methodological grounds. It would be surprising if someone who answers positively to the mystical experience question 'At least once in my life very late at night, I have felt the presence of another being' _did not_ also respond to 'Sometimes in the early morning hours between midnight and 4:00 A.M., my experiences are very meaningful'- but the latter question is supposed to be a 'complex partial epileptic sign'. Small wonder, then, that Persinger reliably gets significant correlations between his two measures. IMHO, Persinger's work in this area is pseudoscience, methodologically and conceptually flawed, lacking the rigor of Mandell's work or the clarity of most research in the mainstream psychology of religion. Persinger uses personal bias instead of objectivity, and seems to believe that he is excluded from the normal process of science (and persecuted as well) because he is challenging other's sacred cows- thus, apparently, he does not have to cite relevant sources or keep up with otherUs research. I think his work is worth paying attention to, however, because he does have his finger on a provocative fact (the appearance of mystical experience as a seizure aura), because he occasionally produces results (such as some interesting EEG data) that cannot immediately be dismissed as methodological artifacts, and because this area is too important to leave to the fringes of science. As long as he goes without criticism, any number of people will take his word as genuine. Sorry for the length of this post. I am interested in eventually preparing this material for publication, so any comments or advice would be much appreciated. -Tavis Allison References: 1) _Percept & Mot Skills_ 57: 1255-62. 2) _J Gen Psychol_ 114 (2): 179-85 3) _Arch Gen Psychiatry_ 32: 1580-85 4) _Epilepsia_ 21: 705-710 5) in _Advances in Epileptology_ v. 15, eds. Porter and Word. 6) in _The Psychobiology of Consciousness_, eds. Davidson and Davidson. 7) _J Clin Psychol_ 49 (1): 33-45


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank