I’ve had some pretty profound and inexplicable encounters in my life. They’re known as EHE’s or exceptional human experiences in the research literature. Some of them were entheogen-enhanced. Others took place while living in the midst of a powerful spiritual community. Still others resulted from isolated traumatic events. Some of the experiences were physiological – the inexplicable instance of a nearly severed toe spontaneously healing overnight. Others were auditory – hearing clear, accurate directives in response to questions I’d posed in great earnest. Still other experiences were visual.
We know from lots of experiments in neuroscience and the psychology of perception and illusion that we are often ill-advised to believe what we see, especially when we’re under stress. This turns out to be particularly true for children who have fewer neural resources to filter out or make sense of surprising or unexpected visions offered up by the forty different areas of the brain devoted to visual processing.
The Ghosts in the Mind Machinery
Rebecca Saxe, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, specializes in research on something called Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind specialists study those brain areas responsible for social cognition. These areas are located mostly on the right side of the brain and they process things like facial recognition, spoken words, body language, prosody and other information to clue us in to what other people’s minds are thinking. Social cognition is what actually allows us to accurately answer the question: “What were they thinking?” (Except, of course, in the case of Darwin Award winners, who clearly weren’t thinking when they most needed to be). Autism provides a good example of people who aren’t able to formulate a Theory of Mind.
Professor Saxe might argue that when you combine those 40 visual areas of the brain, with the social cognition areas and place them both under great stress, what sometimes results is seeing something we often make meaning of by identifying them as spirits or souls. The brain is, after all, a meaning-making organ.
What You See is What You Mean
Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano too, believes that Theory of Mind and social perception are powerfully at work whenever we, or our children, report coming into contact with spirits or souls. Here’s his take:
The science is, in my view, increasingly convincing that human perception of the spirit world depends on, and really is an example of, social perception. But whether the spirit world really exists and is therefore perceived by us, or whether the spirit world is entirely constructed inside the brain as a kind of perceptual illusion, is less obvious. My own belief is the latter – spirit world as construct of the brain. I am not sure that makes it any less real; but it makes it less concrete and also makes it dependent on the human brain. Others, of course, have a very different opinion.
So what are we to make of these brain scientists assertions? First of all, note that they are not saying that seeing ghosts and spirits aren’t real and valid experiences. What they are saying, in part, is that without these social cognition areas of the brain being operational, we would not report such experiences. We would have few ways to apprehend them. Does that make them unreal?
Another key point is the social aspect of such experiences. Souls and spirits tend to interact in ways that we can somehow make meaning and sense of. Too often though, as in this report of an “entity” having sex with grieving widows at an Elizabeth Kübler Ross retreat, these beings all too frequently show up with human foibles and limitations. Why, we might ask, do so few reports come back absent these social aspects? A limitation of the social brain? A deficit in our ability to use language for accurate reporting? A short-circuit in our sensory-imagery translation capacity?
One thing I wonder about is how many of these experiences might be connected to something I’ve written about previously: The Unthought Known. This term refers to traumatic memories stored primarily on the right side of the brain without benefit of language, things that happened before, during and up to three years after our births, before language took root. Might the experience of seeing spirits and souls simply be such memories becoming active in the search for ever-increasing healing and integration? It might be replicating the way later traumatic experiences that we can describe with language present themselves for healing integration. I think it would be an interesting line of inquiry to explore.
P.S. Nice feature on my work this week by our local digerata, Carolyn Tamler here: Understanding Social Neuroscience.