Was it all just in your head? That’s the common question people have after having some sort of a spiritual experience. As it turns out, there are a lot of people who need to answer that question. According to a recent study about 50% of people say they’ve had some sort of an experience where they’ve encountered God, or touched some other dimension of reality. It can happen in various ways, whether by a vision, a voice, or a dream that is more than a dream and is somehow much more real. After having such an experience people always say, “It was REAL!” but skeptics question whether or not that “real” experience was just in their heads.
That’s exactly what Jeff Schimmel believes. The 49-year-old Los Angeles writer was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. But he never bought into God — until after he was touched by a being outside of himself. I read about Schimmel in an article by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, and he recounts to her the following:
“Yeah,” Schimmel says, “I was touched by a surgeon.”
About a 15 years ago, Schimmel had a benign tumor removed from his left temporal lobe. The surgery was a snap. But soon after that — unknown to him — he began to suffer mini-seizures. He’d hear conversations in his head. Sometimes the people around him would look slightly unreal, as if they were animated. Then came the visions. He remembers twice, lying in bed, he looked up at the ceiling and saw a swirl of blue and gold and green colors that gradually settled into a shape. He couldn’t figure out what it was.
“And then, like a flash, it dawned on me: ‘This is the Virgin Mary!’ ” he says. “And you know, it’s funny. I laughed about it, because why would the Virgin Mary appear to me, a Jewish guy, lying in bed looking at the ceiling? She could do much better.” Schimmel became fascinated with spirituality. He became more compassionate, less ambitious. And he wondered: Could his new outlook have to do with his brain? The next visit to his neurologist, he asked to see his most recent MRI.
“My left temporal lobe looked completely different from the way it did before the surgery,” he says. Gradually, it had become smaller, a different shape, covered with scar tissue. Those changes had sparked electrical firings in his brain. Schimmel’s doctor told him he had developed temporal lobe epilepsy — a disease that has fascinated doctors for centuries.
(Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head? Hagerty, May 2009)
The flaw in Schimmel’s thinking is that he assumes the brain creates life instead of receives life. If he believed, as is the case, that life came in from the outside, he could see that what has happened is merely a tuning of his antenna, so to speak. Just because the brain is now different, does not negate the reality of what he saw.
As you would imagine, he’s not the only one who had to struggle with the nature of reality. Back in the Cold War era, the US and USSR used to use psychic spies to go into underground military installations that couldn’t be photographed by spy satellites. At the outset, all of these psychic spies went through a rigorous selection process to identify the people who were the most gifted psychics. However, there was one who joined the group who was not a “natural” psychic. He’d been shot in the head. He was wearing a helmet at the time, and so while the bullet didn’t pierce the head, the impact certainly did something to his brain. After the incident he gained new psychic abilities and became a top remote viewer. Something had changed, but for him, it was clear that what he was experiencing wasn’t just in his head. What he was experiencing was verifiably real.
But lest you think this debate is merely a modern one, Hippocrates wrote a book about 2,500 years ago titled, “On the Sacred Disease.” Based on the descriptions of the disease he’s observed, we know that he’s writing about epilepsy. He comments on the “sacred” disease declaring that it is no more sacred than other diseases, but it gets called “sacred” because the ancients thought that sufferers were possessed by demons, or blessed with divine messages and visions. He stresses the importance of the disease having no relation with the divine whatsoever, but instead being purely of human origin, saying:
“Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder because it is not at all like to other diseases…Men, being in want of the means of life, invent many and various things, and devise many contrivances for all other things and for this disease, in every phase of the disease, assigning the cause to a god…Neither truly do I count it a worthy opinion to hold that the body of man is polluted by God, the most impure by the most holy.”
(On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates, 400 B.C.)
The implications of this are large. This text is regarded as a great turning point in medical history because it is the first time humanity shifts away from blaming God for disease. This is good. God doesn’t give us diseases. Yet it goes too far the other way by eliminating spirituality altogether. Using this text as our anchor, suddenly we must wonder if Paul really did hear Jesus on the road to Damascus, or was he experiencing an auditory hallucination? What about Joseph Smith and the two angels? Muhammad? Joan of Arc? And what about Moses and that burning bush? Maybe they were all just epileptic and seeing things through the eyes of a malfunctioning left temporal lobe?
One of the great hopes that the New Church promises is that in this new era that we live in, “the scientific, the rational, and the spiritual shall become one, and the scientific shall serve the rational, and both together shall serve the spiritual.” (True Christianity 200) It is a day that I can see coming as more and more studies explore the the connection between the interaction of our spirit with our body. One scientist, who has studied all of these brain scans, at least leaves the door open to spirituality. He was asked,
“Does the fact that we can track spiritual feelings in our temporal lobe mean that there’s nothing spiritual going on?”
“No,” he says simply. “Think about a man and woman who are in love,” he says. “They look at each other, and in all likelihood, something fires in their temporal lobes. However, does that negate the presence of true love between them? Of course not. When you get to spirituality, as a scientist I think it really becomes extremely difficult to say anything other than, ‘It’s possible.’ ”
Clearly not everybody agrees on the conclusions. That promised day when science and spirituality are one isn’t here yet because science fails to understand a basic reality: that we are receivers of life. It’s hard to draw proper conclusions when you have a flawed premise. Moses may have indeed had epilepsy, but that doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t change that I believe what Moses experienced was real.