Picture youself in bed, waiting to fall asleep, when suddenly you start seeing millions of stars falling right in front of you. You see a radiant light, one brighter than the rest, mingling with beautiful colours. You feel ecstatic. Everything appears to be shimmering and boiling and then, as suddenly as it came, it dissipates. Throughout all of this, you are fully awake. How would you react?
How about if you were sitting in a room with a group of people and the whole room became infused with a heady scent of orange blossoms and only you could smell it?
I have just described symptoms of neurological disorders. The correct (responsible) response to experiencing anything similar to this would be to go to a doctor and get a neurological checkup. Unfortunately, many of us are raised to believe in angels, demons, God(s) and the Devil. We are also told that these mythical beings are capable of interacting with us. Angels guard over us, by our sides at all times. Demons and sometimes Satan himself are constantly trying to lead us astray. If you need advice, you can ask God - He will answer you.
It is hardly surprising, then, that many people who experience the symptoms I have described do not seek medical attention, but instead ascribe these events to miraculous visions or visitations from God (or some other supernatural being). Last weekend I read the following headline in a newspaper: "Jesus smells like orange blossoms". Why would the paper report such a thing? Because the lady who smelt it was busy praying in a group when she smelt this smell, so obviously it was Jesus (she is also the wife of Angus Buchan, a famous evangelical Christian, making what she smells important enough to publish). I'm not saying she has a neurological disorder for sure, since it was spring when she smelt the blossoms, but an intense smell that only you can detect is definitely something that should be checked out.
The first scenario was experienced by Hildegard of Bingen, a nun who described her "visions" in great detail. In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
, Oliver Sacks explains that such experiences could be caused by hysterical or psychotic ecstasy, the effects of intoxication, epileptic fits or migrainous manifestations. Hildegard's vision described above was in fact "a shower of phosphenes in transit across the visual field, their passage being succeeded by a negative scotoma".
Doesn't sound so holy now, does it?
A conversation with someone on youtube caused me great worry. Here, have a case study:
"God bless you. And so your saying i didnt see things fall right infront of me when no body tough anything no air was on nothing like that. And this happened many times. So your saying my mom didnt see the devil in her mirror and she describes his face as being very very very wrinkles. You atheist i feel bad for you are walking into hell my friend. How sad"
This young lady sees things falling when there is no rational explanation for them to do so and it appears to be a frequent occurrance. Her mother saw impossible images in the mirror. In a subsequent mail, she wrote to me "Not only did these things happen to my family. Other things have happened." Clearly there is a hereditary condition here!
The knowledge we have today far surpasses that of 2000 years ago. It far surpasses what we knew 150 years ago! Gods do not exist. Devils, angels, demons - none of that is real. We do not have immaterial souls. We are only physical bodies with physical brains. Many supernatural events people have experienced can be reproduced by stimulating certain parts of the brain with electricity. Out of body experiences, hearing voices, seeing things that aren't there, feeling a "presence" - all of this can be explained through science. (You don't even need internal brain functions to go awry for strange things to manifest themselves - consider the effects of infrasound in humans
It is a disgrace that we, in 2009, still have to combat such ludicrous notions as miraculous visions and visitations from otherwordly beings. By misrepresenting certain experiences, religious belief can prevent necessary medical intervention and cause irreversible damage or suffering due to lack of accurate diagnoses. What I'm trying to say is, don't mistake your temporal-lobe seizures for messages from God. Or, as Gregory House put it: "You talk to God, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic."
*Disclosure: As someone within the mental health care field, I stand to profit from people reporting their holy visions as neurological conditions.