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Nonfiction

When the Brain Sees God on a Toaster Pastry

When the Brain Sees God on a Toaster Pastry by The Evil MonkeyWhat actually happens when a person sees a deity in an inanimate object, specifically not associated with a concomitant religious experience? We’re not talking a full-blown VISION FROM ABOVE here, but the perception of an image that is supposedly accessible to others. We have often seen the social consequences. Other True BelieversTM will then flock for miles, if not from other continents, to catch a glimpse of the Virgin Mary on a tortilla shell. Or at least convince one another that they were there and saw it, like when you stare at the crazy dot picture in the mall and swear you saw the damn boat. But what happens in the mind of the first person who saw it? What happens to the person sitting at the kitchen table, staring down at their peanut butter sandwich, and suddenly seeing an important religious figure?

That depends on what you believe. People who agree with the person will believe that they saw a miracle, no matter how implausible it may sound. Those who don’t believe will look for a neurological explanation. What they will often seize on is the “binding problem.”

The binding problem is well-known in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.  Specifically, it’s the question of how we take different features—say, an arrangement of black and red blocks in a regular alternating pattern—and know to call it “checkerboard?” How do we know that four wheels and doors on a particular object makes it a “car,” and not a “truck” or “wagon?” When you look at your dad and his brothers, who all have the same basic facial features—the same color moustache, the same receding hairline, same eye color, even the same glasses—how do you tell them apart?

The scientific literature is replete with examples of individuals that have damage to various parts of their temporal lobes resulting from injury, congenital defect, stroke, tumor, or other ailment. These people are often unable to properly “bind features” into a cognitive whole. For example, a patient may be able to navigate their environment just fine, but place a pencil on the table and ask him or her to describe it and you’ll get “well, it’s a cylindrical object about eight inches long with a point, its yellow, and there’s a rubber thing on the end.” Ask the patient to pick it up and they’ll say “oh, it’s a pencil!” The areas that recognize an object via vision may be compromised, but other sensory modalities like touch can supply the missing information.

A similar deficit is known as prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces. An area of the temporal lobe known as the fusiform gyrus contains what is known as the fusiform face area (FFA). People with FFA lesions, or degeneration due to Alzheimer’s, will have difficulty identifying another person’s face on sight. They have to come up with other strategies to identify people, such as by waiting for them to talk and thus recognizing them by voice, or possibly by recognizing the person’s gait as they navigate the room.

So we know that the temporal lobe is important for binding features into larger cognitive constructs. It allows us to “recognize.” Feature Integration Theory is often cited to explain this phenomenon. FIT includes two basic precepts: Feature search and conjunction search. Feature search can occur quickly and without conscious effort, where color, orientation, and other primitive features are brought to attention. At this level a person can often remember whether particular features were present, but not where they were located. Conjunction search is slower, and requires conscious effort to search for conjunctions of primitive features. So thinking back to the checkerboard, feature search brings to your attention the fact that red and black are present, and that there is a repeating pattern of alternating squares. Conjunction search helps you recognize and attach the label of “checkerboard”.

Perhaps the experience of seeing the Virgin Mary in a tortilla is mediated by an “overly ambitious” temporal lobe. If primitive features are combined into easily recognizable archetypes, especially of a religious nature that have significant emotional and cultural importance to the viewer, and are then made accessible to conjunction search, it seems plausible that we can explain these particular types of experiences by studying the brain. Interestingly, cultural expectations seem to play into the perceived religious experience, solidifying the importance of combining primitive features so they can be easily picked out by using a minimal amount of conjunction search brain power. Those not of Judeo-Christian upbringing, for example, may be less inclined to see a tortilla with the Virgin Mary in it, but more inclined to recognize Vishnu on a papadam or Buddha in the petals of a lotus blossom.

The icons of faith permeate nearly every society, and yet they’re seen as removed from daily life. Many religious orders offer ways to integrate the spiritual and the everyday. Perhaps the brain has its own way of doing that.

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The Evil Monkey

Evil MonkeyThe Evil Monkey has a Ph.D. in the neurosciences and used to study memory in primates for a living.  He now resides in the Midwest and spends his professional time teaching at the local state university and community college.  When not teaching, he is often engaged in an endless cycle of home repair or playing with his stepkids or writing his irreverent neuroscience blog Neurotopia.