Sunday, February 26, 2012

God and tumor in the temporal lobe

God gains upper hand on Mr. Y.

Mr. Y. was just forty five years old when he succumbed to brain tumor. He was working in private hospital as a ward attendant. Till he became prey to the killer tumor in the brain he was a man of minimal religiosity. He just had faith in the Allah, the almighty and his messenger Prophet Muhammad; and that was all. He rarely observed such rituals of faith as five-times-a-day prayer, attending mass-prayer at the mosque on Fridays, observing fast in the month of Ramadan etc. But he was a very dutiful hospital attendant caring the patients to his best.
During the Ramadan fasting last year he became very religious and less dutiful. He spent most part of the days in prayers and reading Koran. Sometimes he sat lost in meditation and occasionally he conversed with some unseen ethereal personalities. Sometimes he was seen weeping. Seeing these grossly abnormal behaviour his wife thought of a psychiatric consultation.  When he was brought to me for psychiatric examination he had full grown beard and dark patch of the forehead indicating frequent prostration (sujood).  He was very co-operative and communicative throughout the clinical examination. In the psychiatric interview he admitted that it all started with a strange experience of being near the Allah almighty and he felt extreme happiness. Since that moment he decided to be more religious and observe the rituals devotedly. Following the first experience of the nearness of the God he had had visions of angels and some other superior beings. He said that sometimes he felt that his own self and the cosmos became one and the same. He wanted to go to Mecca to do the Hajj rituals and desired to die there. In the clinical examination I noticed lapses in his short term memory. There was also mild degree of paralysis of the right arm and leg. His wife gave a history of partial fits a few days ago. The muscle jerks were confined to the right side of face and upper part of the body. She thought the muscle jerks were unimportant because he didn’t become unconscious during the seizure.
On the clear indication of some organic abnormality in the left temporal lobe of his brain I referred him to a hospital equipped with a neurosurgery department.  In the work up there, Mr. Y. was found to be a case of left sided temporal lobe tumor. He was subjected to brain surgery and the microscopic examination of the removed tumor clinched the diagnosis malignant cancer called anaplastic oligodendroglioma. Mr. Y. withstood the brain surgery and recovered very well, but he died during the course of chemotherapy in a cancer centre, probably due to sudden stoppage of his heart.

Why Mr. Y. became hyper-religious?

Believers, when they come to know that they are suffering from a fatal illness, become more religious and seek solace from God, their savior and protector. But Mr. Y. was quite unaware of the cancer gnawing his brain. Obviously the reason for his over-religiosity was an abnormal growth in his left temporal lobe which triggered hyper-activity of the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is the set of brain structures that forms the inner border of the cortex. The term "limbic" comes from the Latin “limbus”, for "border" or "edge".  It consists of following structures:
  1. Hippocampus: Required for the formation of long-term memories.
  2. Amygdala: Involved in signaling the cortex of motivationally significant stimuli such as those related to reward and fear.
  3. Fornix: carries signals from the hippocampus to the mammillary bodies and septal nuclei.
  4. Mammillary body: Important for the formation of memory.
  5. Septal nuclei: Located in front of the septum or partition wall between the ventricles or cavities of brain on either side. The septal nuclei provide critical interconnections between different parts of the limbic system.

The limbic system operates by influencing the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system. It is highly interconnected with the nucleus accumbens, the brain's pleasure center, which plays a role in sexual arousal and the "high" derived from certain intoxicating drugs. The limbic system is also tightly connected to the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for logical thinking and executive functions of the mind. Some scientists contend that this connection is related to the pleasure obtained from solving problems. To cure severe emotional disorders, this connection was sometimes surgically severed, a procedure of psychosurgery, called a prefrontal lobotomy (this is actually a misnomer). Patients who underwent this procedure often became passive and lacked all motivation.
Much of our knowledge about the functions of the limbic system comes from the study of symptoms of patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. Ordinarily epilepsy is characterized by suddenly falling and unconscious and violent jerking of the whole body lasting for about a few minutes. This type of epilepsy is commonly known as grand mal type of epilepsy. But in temporal lobe epilepsy, which originate from some part of the temporal lobe of brain and remain confined to the temporal, there will not be any violent jerking of the body. The most striking feature of the temporal lobe epilepsy is emotional outbursts which is equivalent of the violent jerking of the body in the common type of epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy patients after an attack may say “my feelings were on fire.” The emotional outbursts range from intense ecstasy to profound despair. In some cases there may be a sense impending doom or even fits of extreme rage and terror. Women patients sometimes experience orgasm during temporal lobe seizure. But most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experience, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything about them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, “Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.” They may have a sense of enlightenment. Even though temporal lobe seizure last for a few seconds, the whole personality of the individual drastically changes and get tuned to the spirituality they experience during seizures.
A relevant question is what would be the result if temporal lobe epilepsy occurs in an atheist? I don’t think an atheist may become believer or religious due to the emotional experiences caused by temporal lobe seizures, provided his/her logical system in the mind is strong enough to rationalize the emotional outbursts he/she is experiencing is due to abnormality of the temporal lobe of the brain.
Some so-called cognitive scientists believed that the limbic system in the temporal lobe is the “God Module” of the human brain gifted by the God almighty. One such cognitive scientist created a device to stimulate the temporal lobe to experience godliness.

Story of the “God Helmet”

The "God Helmet" or “Koren Helmet” refers to an experimental apparatus devised by a psychology professor Stanley Koren. It was conceived by Koren and Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger to study the effects of subtle stimulation of the temporal lobes. Reports by participants of a "sensed presence" while wearing the God helmet brought public attention and it has appeared in several TV documentaries. The device has been used in Persinger's research in the field of neuro-theology, the study of the brain parts involved in religious beliefs and spirituality. The apparatus, placed on the head of an experimental subject, generates very weak fluctuating magnetic fields that Persinger refers to as "complex." These fields are approximately as strong as those generated by a land line telephone handset or an ordinary hair dryer, but far weaker than that of an ordinary fridge magnet. Persinger reports that many subjects have reported "mystical experiences and altered states" while wearing the God Helmet. Anecdotal reports by journalists, academics and documentary film makers have been mixed and the effects reported by Persinger have not been independently replicated.
The scientist and science writer Richard Dawkins, appearing in the BBC science documentary series Horizon, did not have a 'sensed presence' experience, but instead felt at times 'slightly dizzy', 'quite strange' and had sensations in his limbs and changes in his breathing. He summarized his experience as follows: "It pretty much felt as though I was in total darkness, with a helmet on my head and pleasantly relaxed". 
The so-called religiosity or spirituality propelled by the abnormalities of the temporal lobe and limbic system is nothing but emotional fits or seizures originating in some part of the temporal lobe.


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