Neurology of possession

54% of Americans believe in demons, demonic possession, and exorcisms (Wikipedia). That’s not surprising, because most believe in the Bible, which tells many stories (especially in the New Testament) of demons. In one famous case, Jesus cast out a legion of malevolent spirits from a man into 2000 pigs who then leaped into the ocean (Mark 5)—offering a new twist on the old koan about dogs possessing Buddha-nature.

Possession and exorcism are enjoying increased visibility. This year we had another exorcism movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (IMDB), based loosely on the true story of a demonic possession in Germany. And it was widely reported that Pope Benedict XVI spoke to a group of exorcists right after his investiture, praising their “important work”.

Exorcisms play an important role in Roman Catholic theology. Baptisms, actually, are a kind of mini-exorcism . In the past, the church also taught that every newborn was possessed by an indwelling demon because of its intimate contact with its mother’s birth canal, a demon which had to be exorcised with a special prayer. Pope John Paul II is reported to have performed three exorcisms during his 23-year papacy. New exorcism guidelines were issued by the Church in 1999, the first revisions in more than 350 years. Devils can now be cast out in local languages, not just Latin. The new rules counsel that less than 1% of people coming to the Church for exorcisms are really possessed—the rest merely need psychiatric treatment. (Of course, other flavors of Christianity as well as non-Christian religions—including Hinduism and Islam—have possession-related theologies as well.)

The “official” secular view of exorcisms, in contrast, is that alleged cases of demonic possession are “merely” brain disorders, such as epilepsy, Tourette’s, schizophrenia, or dissociative identity disorder. However, these medical explanations of the possession phenomenon may not be able to explain some aspects of possession, such as great physical strength (reported in both Biblical and more recent episodes of possession). Of course, as with stigmata, there may be cases of people faking possession, or acting out possession, but it seems highly unlikely that all demonic infestations could be written off as fakery.

Like other religious manifestations, demonic possession is of deep interest to neurotheology. It’s known to be connected to other phenomena like speaking in tongues (some of the possessed speak in unknown languages). You can think of it as a sort of converse to religious megalomania. Most importantly, it’s a known, identifiable phenomenon which can be studied and measured.

In fact, that’s just what Channel 4 in the UK attempted last year, performing an exorcism on live TV while monitoring the subject’s brain (Telegraph article). At the outset, this project seemed profoundly promising. According to an article in Scotland’s Sunday Herald, C4’s Matthew Robinson “highlighted the programme’s scientific elements and insisted the experiment was legitimate”, saying

This is a unique scientific investigation of a much-misunderstood religious practice. Exorcism remains shrouded in mystery. It has always been considered off-limits as far as scientific investigation is concerned, like most apparently inexplicable religious phenomena. But the emergence of neurotheology is changing that.

According to the pre-event publicity, Dr Peter Fenwick (Google search), the noted NDE expert, would monitor the subject’s brain activity. The TV exorcism would be performed by an Anglican priest while cutting-edge neuro-imaging technology monitored activity in the adult male subject’s brain.

The reality was much less enlightening. Inexplicably, C4’s own website appears to contain no content about the show other than some background information about neurotheology. Dr. Fenwick disappears, and instead we are left with the unknown Dr. Jonathan Bird, a “neuro-psychiatrist” who said he observed “very little activity in the parietal region of the brain”, this analysis not based on the promised “cutting edge neuroimaging technology” but rather a plain old electroencephalograph. He also noted “some asymmetry in the temporal lobe”, concluding, “whether that is a brain process or a spiritual process, I leave to the experts.” Where are those experts when you really need them!?

Other aspects of the on-the-air stunt also don’t ring true. We are told that the subject, named “Colin”, claimed he had been “possessed by evil spirits” for many years—but are given no information on his symptomology. The “deliverance” consisted mainly of prayer, strangely devoid of rotating heads or projectile vomiting. Afterwards, Colin made the odd comment that “it was the most relaxed deliverance I have ever had.” Well, how many exactly has he had?

A robust theory of neurotheology will include a compelling story about diabolical possessions . Too bad C4’s program failed so miserably in helping us arrive at one.

5 Responses to “Neurology of possession”

  1. Chris Says:

    Interesting article. I would like to have seen the televised exorcism (or would I?) because I find it fascinating that such a weak attempt was made to study this religious phenomenon.

    I’m glad I read your article. I had never heard of neurotheology until now, and I will be looking for more neurotheological studies in the future. It appears to be a very interesting field of study. Thanks for sharing.

  2. spiritual_emergency Says:

    Neurotheology? I can’t say that I’ve heard of it until now, but I wonder if it correlates in some fashion with my understanding of spiritual emergency? Perhaps you would know best.

    You are welcome to read through the collection of articles I’ve collected at my blog as related to spiritual emergency. In particular, you may find the article on forms of spiritual emergency to be interesting as it touches on possession states.

  3. Kayla Olson Says:

    do think that we all had past lives?
    I come from a very spiritual family because i am native american and we believe in demons and spirits, but i some times think that my tribe could have thought this all up and passed it down for generations and we now are afraid of these evil spirits, or demons.
    If you can please try to get back to me on this i would very much appreciate it!!!!

    thank you!!

  4. holly Says:

    i think 100% of the ghosts that sum people see are real !!

    i was watching excorsism video and i didnt think it was real but it

    was it shit the fuk outta me loool

    luff yarr

    thank you


  5. Numenware, a blog about neurotheology » Blog Archive » 25 top neurotheology research topics Says:

    […] Fringe phenomena. Are phenomena such as possession and stigmata real, and if so can we understand their neural basis? (Neurology of possession […]

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