Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/25/2009

God is a many splendored thing ~ or how TLE may save the world

[No one, I know, will read all of this. That’s not the point. I have to write it. You may, however, find this excursion into the bizarre entertaining.]

The room always fills with white noise. Out of the white noise evolves a ringing (I discovered a name for the sound when I heard Yvonne Loriod herself play the Ondes Martenot as her husband Olivier Messaien conducted his Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine at the Boston Symphony sometime around 1980) on B-flat three octaves above middle C. The ringing lasts for some seconds and explodes into an overlay of more white noise, and whatever is happening in the “real” world close at hand withdraws into a distance which is immediate and almost palpable, yet appears far away and very small—as if it were visible only by looking through the wrong end of binoculars—not an “out-of-body” experience, but a moving of the body into a different “time-space continuum” than the mind occupies.

In 1981 I talked to a psychiatrist and casually mentioned the Ondes Martenot sound and the retreat of palpable reality, and he knew of the work of Dr. Norman Geschwind, who solidified the research into Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and of Dr. S~~, a specialist in TLE. Whether or not my own binocular view of the world is a “fit” for the diagnosis, when one has the opportunity, one goes to see Dr. S~~, who diagnoses TLE. Can one be sure? I have no oozing sore, no irregular heartbeat, no broken limb, no physical manifestation of disease, but only these oddities which, for all I know, everyone experiences as “reality.” And how am I sure when asked questions about the oddities that I observe in my own mind if my answers are correct? The answers have no collaboration. Trying to answer the specific questions about the amorphous makes me crazy. MRIs show nothing. EEGs show nothing. Nothing shows nothing. Yet I look backward through binoculars constantly. And I hear white noise and the Ondes Martenot. The doctors are fascinated by the fact that it’s always that high B-flat, and that I know what pitch it is.

Academic literature is replete with articles about TLE and “religious experience.” Whether or not one believes in God is irrelevant. What I want to know is how anyone who does not have TLE can possibly understand the religious experience of those who do. (The neuroscience is remarkably advanced, and, as far as this layman can tell, makes sense. Certain areas of the brain do religious work and certain areas do other kinds of work. I would not hazard a guess what it all means.)

What most people mean by “religious experience” is a mystical run-in with a saint or the Holy Grail—an icon from the religious tradition one knows. What one sees, hears, smells, or tastes when one is hearing white noise interrupted by an Ondes Martenot, is, as far as I have ever been able to discover, completely inexplicable to anyone else. So my “religious experiences” do not involve saints or stigmata or crosses or a talking Buddha or any of the other enchanting visions TLEptics report. My seeing the Virgin Mary in a vision would be a priori bizarre because I have little attachment to her as a religious icon.

The universe of images associated with religion was vastly missing from my formative years. Baptist. We didn’t even have a cross in our church. Popish. The religious image that might come to me in a “vision” would be a tank full of water. I love religious iconography now, but that’s not what my poor befuddled brain would come up with to tell Dr. A~~ about if I had a vision.

“Humans are dualists; they act as if (and usually believe that) a person has both a physical body and another part—a soul, spirit, or ‘essence’ that defines that person. The body, an animate object, gets tagged by our intuitive biology as something that eats, sleeps, walks, has sex, and dies. However, because the psychological part is not visible and does not have an obvious physical substance, it is subject to different inferences; ‘it dies’ is not one of them. Humans have an intuitive belief that one’s body and one’s essence are separate.” **

This is fascinating to any TLEptic. “…a person has a physical body and another part—a soul, spirit, or ‘essence’ that defines that person.” If that’s true, it’s no wonder TLEptics (this one at any rate) have trouble living in the “real” world.  To us, the soul, spirit, or essence is obvious. The physical body is the problem.  Does everyone feel this dissociation, but no one wants to admit it?

Michael Saunders Gazzaniga continues, “Because the mental separation happens automatically, it is easy to think that either the body or the essence can exist separately, hence the concepts of a zombie, the body without the mind, or the soul, spirit without the body. Humans, unsurprisingly, have been even more creative, inventing other essences such as ghosts, angels, demons, the devil, and gods or God. . . being a dualist and conceiving of such entities as spirits or God are uniquely human qualities.”

So if persons with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy have these “religious experiences,” then, by default, they (we) are the most thoroughly human of all primates. (This may also apply to other quirks of the brain that my doctors believe, on the basis of my inability to describe what I feel, see, and hear, is TLE. Or it may all be the result of what several psychiatrists are convinced is my Bipolar Disorder).

Immanuel Kant wrote in 1783, “How is it that in this space, here, we can make judgments that we know with apodictic certainty will be valid in space, there?” *** What a clever fellow he was—writing before the science of Astrobiology. In this space, here, I make judgments that will be valid in space (and time, and any other dimension we discover).  Timothy Hubbard agrees. “Kant’s analysis suggested to him that the laws of space are known to the mind because those laws are actually of the mind, and so knowledge of space reflects an a priori knowledge (i.e., a knowledge prior to experience and thus possibly innate to the organism). Such an a priori knowledge could be construed to be a part of human nature.”

In this space, here, in my Temporal Lobe (or wherever it is happening) I can make judgments that I know with necessarily demonstrable certainty will be valid there. Don’t call the paramedics or my doctors. I’m not claiming to be speaking to or for “ghosts, angels, demons, the devil, and gods or God.” I have a special relationship with my Temporal Lobe (or some mysterious part of my brain) that most folks don’t with theirs. If I do begin to have “religious experiences,” someone better pay attention. The Holy Grail won’t appear to me, or Our Virgin of Somewhere Else or even a Baptist prayer meeting. I will know the essence of reality. Starting with the Big Bang.

** Gazzaniga, Michael Saunders. “Humans: The Party Animal.” Daedalus.  138.3 (Summer 2009): 21(14). 
***Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomenon to Any Future Metaphysics (1783). Quoted in ****
****Hubbard, Timothy L. “The inner meaning of outer space: human nature and the celestial realm.” Avances en Psicología Latinoamericana 26.1 (Jan 2008): 52(14).



  1. Well to prove you wrong, I did read all of this and found it very interesting indeed!


  2. I also read it all, and am glad I did. 🙂


    • Geoff,
      And I read your blog and am glad I did.
      It’s much too early in the morning to say I understood it (one of the strangenesses of my brain: I must write when I’m up at this hour—or, more likely, I’m up at this hour because I must write—but that does not translate into being able to read/understand).
      I’m going to add a link to your blog because I checked out the Conservative Humanist Association and found it fascinating. “Conservative” I don’t think I am, but “humanist,” yes.



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