Demon-Haunted Brain


by Michael Shermer

From E-SKEPTIC FOR APRIL 12, 2003 Copyright 2003 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine. Permission to print, distribute, and post with proper citation and acknowledgment. Subscribe to e-Skeptic for free by sending an e-mail to:

Five centuries ago demons haunted our world, with incubi and succubi tormenting their victims as they lay asleep in their beds. Two centuries ago spirits haunted our world, with ghosts and ghouls harassing their sufferers all hours of the night. Last century aliens haunted our world, with grays and greens abducting captives out of their beds and whisking them away for probing and prodding. Today people are experiencing out-of-body experiences, floating above their beds, out of their bedrooms, and even off the planet into space.

What is going on here? Are these elusive creatures and mysterious phenomena in our world or in our minds? New evidence indicates that they are, in fact, a product of the brain. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger, in his laboratory at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, for example, can induce all of these experiences in subjects by subjecting their temporal lobes to patterns of magnetic fields (I tried it and had a mild out-of-body experience).

Similarly, the September 19, 2002 issue of Nature, reported that the Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke and his colleagues discovered that they could bring about out-of-body experiences through electrical stimulation of the right angular gyrus in the temporal lobe of a 43-year old woman suffering from severe epileptic seizures. In initial mild stimulations she reported "sinking into the bed" or "falling from a height." More intense stimulation led her to "see myself lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk." Another stimulation induced "an instantaneous feeling of "lightness" and "floating" about two meters above the bed, close to the ceiling."

In a related study reported in the 2001 book Why God Won't Go Away, researchers Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili found that when Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns pray their brain scans indicate strikingly low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a region of the brain the authors have dubbed the Orientation Association Area (OAA), whose job it is to orient the body in physical space (people with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their way around a house). When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly there is a sharp distinction between self and non-self. When OAA is in sleep mode—as in deep meditation and prayer—that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of body. Perhaps this is what happens to monks who experience a sense of oneness with the universe, or with nuns who feel the presence of God, or with alien abductees floating out of their beds up to the mother ship.

Sometimes trauma can trigger such experiences. The December 2001 issue of Lancet published a Dutch study in which of 344 cardiac patients resuscitated from clinical death, 12 percent reported near-death experiences, where they had an out-of-body experience and saw a light at the end of a tunnel. Some even described speaking to dead relatives. Since our normal experience is of stimuli coming into the brain from the outside, when a part of the brain abnormally generates these illusions another part of the brain interprets them as external events. Hence, the abnormal is thought to be the paranormal.

These studies are only the latest to deliver blows against the belief that mind and spirit are separate from brain and body. In reality, all experience is mediated by the brain. Large brain areas like the cortex coordinate imputes from smaller brain areas such as the temporal lobes, which themselves collate neural events from still smaller brain modules like the angular gyrus. This reduction continues all the way down to the single neuron level, where highly-selective neurons, sometimes described as "grandmother" neurons fire only when subjects see someone they know. Caltech neuroscientists Christof Koch and Gabriel Kreiman, in conjunction with UCLA neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried have even found a single neuron that fires when the subject is shown a photograph of Bill Clinton. The Monica neuron must be closely connected.

Of course, we are not aware of the workings of our own electrochemical systems. What we actually experience is what philosophers call qualia, or subjective states of thoughts and feelings that arise from a concatenation of neural events.

It is the fate of the paranormal and the supernatural to be subsumed into the normal and the natural. In fact, there is no paranormal or supernatural; there is only the normal and the natural—and mysteries yet to be explained.

It is the job of science, not pseudoscience, to solve those puzzles with natural, not supernatural, explanations.