Ever see things that weren’t there? Ghosts? UFOs? Men with feelings?
Sure you have. It happens to all of us, especially on those nights when you polish a whole bottle of Jäger off on your own. But what if you take the alcohol out of the equation and those little green men are still washing your dishes? How is it possible for a sane, sober, rational human to see things that aren’t there, and that maybe don’t even exist? Because your mind is your reality, that’s how. And your mind only exists because your brain exists. And your reality only reflects REALITYTM inasmuch as the information your brain processes accurately represents the world. Which, of course, then begs the question: what happens to us sane, sober, rational humans when our brains misfire?
Well, the answer depends on the part of the brain that malfunctions, and how.
For instance, releasing too much of certain neurotransmitters in one area of the brain is associated with schizophrenia; releasing too little of the same transmitters in a different brain area will beget movement disorders. Unwanted electrical activity in certain visual centers may lead you to hallucinate that your ex-wife is hiding in the bushes with a butcher knife, waiting. Patiently waiting. Biding her time.
Wait, where was I? Oh yes, electrical activity.
Not enough activity in the area known as the angular gyrus can trigger out-of-body experiences, at least in a lab setting, and drugs like LSD create an artificial condition where the users becomes synaesthetic and get their sensory wires crossed, enabling them to “see” sounds and “hear” colors. So, bottom line? When your brain goes tits-up, all manner of inappropriate (and impossible) experiences can suddenly become very real.
Now, one area that readily goes bonkers is the limbic system. The limbic system is a fascinating set of brain structures that contribute to your emotional states, plus some forms of memory, attention, and decision-making. Many of these parts are located in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) or connect with it. Comprised of cortical pain processing areas and MTL areas such as the amygdala (which processes fear-based emotions), memory-related structures (such as the hippocampus), and olfactory bulbs that bypass the usual thalamic relay centers and feed directly into the whole mess—(Ever wonder why smells can generate intense emotional memories? There you go.)—this motley limbic conglomerate is the site of some interesting functions and some even more interesting pathologies.
Pathologies such as seizures.
Limbic system brain seizures can be triggered by many things-traumatic brain injuries, viral infections—and it is common for the hippocampus to be the epicenter of this seizure activity. The hippocampus, by the way, is a seahorse-shaped structure that’s also a working-memory workhorse; it assists in the consolidation and recall of memories, and the formation of spatial maps of your environment. Consequently, the hippocampus is a highly active area of the brain, a site of intense activity. But sometimes that activity can spiral out of control. So as waves of electrical activity synchronize and build to fervor, washing through the brain like Ludwig Van’s Ninth (and potentially leaving behind a little neuron-on-neuron ultraviolence), the individual frequently becomes incapacitated. They can hallucinate. And unfortunately, the hippocampus and other limbic structures are adjacent to those areas of the temporal lobe which control object recognition, perception, and a slew of other visual functions, and when these regions get swept up in the seizure activity, they can contribute to the content of hallucinations. So, in other words, you’re no longer writing that bad Avatar fanfic porn, you’re curled up naked on the couch with your new Na’vi hottie which, alas, is really just a bowl of blue Jello. This phenomenon is a well-documented finding in the scientific literature. (Well, maybe not the part about the Jello.)
Now, oddly enough, researchers have discovered that these MTL seizures are more common in the profoundly religious. Why? We don’t know, exactly. All we do know is that those who say they experience the presence of their deity on a personal level are more likely to show electrical patterns in their brains that are consistent with MTL seizure events.
Armed with this curious knowledge, Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist who studies so-called “paranormal” phenomena and their origins in the brain, has devised a helmet that uses magnets to generate electrical fields in the brain. When he focuses these fields on the MTL area, he can trigger all sorts of “spiritual” experiences. And when he includes the parietal cortex, he can induce out-of-body and other sensations. And it’s for this reason that Persinger’s toy has been dubbed the “God Helmet.”
Now, for some subjects, wearing the God Helmet causes them to experience phenomena as minute as the perception of somebody else in the room. But for others, it can be a full-blown-tent-revival-PRAISE-JESUS-OH-MY-GOD-THIS-IS-THE-BEST-SEX-I’VE-EVER-HAD sort of personal rapture. And the fun isn’t just reserved for the innately spiritual, either; even atheists are prone to these sorts of experiences when wearing Dr. Persinger’s God Helmet. What all this evidence suggests, of course, is that these so-called “paranormal” or “psychic” brouhahas are physical in origin and in nature. Jesus, Vishnu, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters need not apply. (The Blue Jello, on the other hand, is a keeper.)
And, this being the brain, the fun and games don’t stop there. These MTL seizures can also cause brain damage. Here’s how it works: the patient seizes. Afterwards, the brain “kindles,” meaning it becomes more and more likely to experience a seizure as a result of each prior seizure. With each new episode, limbic system neurons dump out a bunch of excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate. The glutamate stimulates other neurons to fire. Which then dump even more glutamate. Which, in turn, stimulates even more neurons. Yeah, you get the point. Drop a pebble in the pond, you get ripples; so saith Bruce Lee. Problem is, though, that high levels of glutamate are toxic, hence the damage. When your brain gets damaged, it’s more sensitive to the next kindling event. The problem compounds. And in this fight, misfires are definitely not good, gunslinger. Not if you want to remember the face of your father, or much else for that matter.
So, ghosts? Green men? Gods? When your brain misfires, it has the potential to invent these and other artificial realities as your out-of-control limbic structures create the sensation of things which seem real, but actually aren’t. When you’re in the midst of this brain trauma (and most likely not even aware it’s going on), it’s hard to know that what you perceive isn’t reality, but a distorted reflection of it as brought to your brain via your limited, faulty senses. And when your brain, that Jello-like processing center, screws up badly enough, it honestly doesn’t matter how good your senses are. Because, unfortunately, that lump of Jello between your ears is what creates your reality.
Hopefully, yours isn’t blue.