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Personal Religious Experiences: Real or Imagined?

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Friday May 08, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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First, you have to accept that any answer you come up with will be a probabilistic one. All experiences are filtered through our minds, and our minds are far from perfect reality detectors that can be in any sense of the word "certain," aside from some arguably self-evident philosophical certainties such as "I exist". While the word "personal" implies subjectivity, many people often confuse a personal experience with their interpretation of a personal experience that often includes objective claims of interaction with other beings or places. Our brains process electro-chemical signals taken in from our senses and what we call our minds (a function of the brain) attempt to make sense of this information given what we already know and believe about the world. So how can we know which personal experiences represent reality, and which are more likely distortions of reality based on our world views? The answer, reason and science.

In his book, Hallucinations, Oliver Saks gives vivid examples and details of what are called hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations. These are defined as "visual, tactile, auditory, or other sensory events, usually brief but occasionally prolonged, that occur at the transition from wakefulness to sleep (hypnagogic) or from sleep to wakefulness (hypnopompic)." These are very common (I actually have them about once per month). The hallucinations are seldom random, but often are a result of persistent thoughts or meditations. As a kid, I was obsessed with alien movies and would attempt to hide under the sheets at night from potential alien invaders and their anal probes. At times, I would awake in the middle of the night and "see" an alien in my room, and watch in terror as it slowly "disappeared" before my own eyes. People form strong beliefs based on these kinds of hallucinations, convinced of alien abductions, visits from Jesus or dead loved ones, and even remotely "traveling" to another place or time. Without knowledge of these tricks of the mind, it is easy to see how one might interpret these experiences as an actual visit from aliens, Jesus, or Aunt Millie who has been dead for 17 years.

Writing experiences off as hallucinations or other tricks of the mind is a reliable heuristic (i.e., it would accurately explain the vast majority of what might otherwise be considered "supernatural experiences"), but it is possible that if one really did have a "supernatural experience," it could be interpreted incorrectly as a trick of the mind. Here are some things to think about that will help you decide if your interpretation of personal experience is accurate.

A Result of Obsession or Persistent Thoughts. Is your experience based on an obsession that you have? This is common for those too deeply immersed in religion or science-fiction. In psychology, an obsession is characterized by "a continual thought, concept, picture, or urge which is experienced as invasive and not proper, and results in significant fear, distress, or discomfort." Hallucinations (again, even the common kind) are strongly associated with obsessive thoughts. Hallucinations are not only visual, but can also be auditory (hearing things) and/or kinesthetic (feeling things). Even if thoughts don't quite qualify as obsessive, persistent thoughts are also associated with hallucinations, but to a lesser degree and frequency.

A Better Explanation. As within the hallucination example above, psychology provides very detailed naturalistic explanations for some of life's most bizarre experiences. Without knowing about these explanations, it is easy to accept a supernatural explanation as the "default" explanation, although a good critical thinker would realize that assuming the supernatural is unwarranted, and at best the experience is simply unexplained. For example, perhaps you saw an alien in your room in the middle of the night and you were unable to move or speak. You might conclude that the alien paralyzed you temporarily. However, a very common condition called sleep paralysis explains the inability to move or speak. This is often combined with hypnopompic or hypnagogic hallucinations resulting in one terrifying but common and completely natural experience.

The Same General Experience, Very Different Interpretation. All around the world, people have personal experiences that they interpret as being in communication with alien, spiritual, or multidimensional beings. Not surprisingly, the "being" is virtually always the result of the person's culture or existing belief system. For example, here in the US, most people claim to communicate with Jesus. In the Middle East, most people claim to communicate with Allah. The Hindi's claim to communicate with one or more of the many Hindi gods. Native Americans claim to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors. UFO enthusiasts claim to communicate with aliens. The list goes on. While it may sound plausible that a being or beings (a god, a mad scientist who created our universe, the government) can be communicating with us in a form with which we can relate, we need to weigh this possibility with the naturalistic explanation and look for at the common denominator in all these experiences: the human mind.

Third Party Verification. When I attended a spoon-bending seminar many years back, dozens of people all around me were bending spoons with what was claimed to be "mental energy," while my skeptical mindset appeared to block this energy and keep my spoon straight as an... unbended spoon. While the other participants were enthusiastically confirming each other's ability to harness this mental energy as "witnesses" to the event, they were simply confirming that the other people bent the spoons with their hands—the individuals could not possibly verify that this "mental energy" was the cause of the bending spoons. In another example, if a channel 5 news crew managed to film and document a person being abducted by an alien, that would be a different story. Despite the term "personal experience," it is possible for many of these interpretations to be verified by a third party—if in fact they reflected reality.

No New Information. Personal experiences often result in insights, confidence in a decision, or platitudes. What they don't result in is new information that the person didn't already have. For example, "mediums" who claim to communicate with the dead relay messages such as "Grammy loves you and misses you" or "Uncle Bob wishes he spent more time with you." This is a form of the Barnum or Forer Effect, some generic information in which just about everyone can find some meaning. When people have near death experiences, their gods, dead loved ones, or other beings tell them things such as "be kind to others" or "you still have more to do." These generic messages are all clear reflections of one's subconscious, that is, information they already have. If your personal experience results in information such as the following day's winning lottery numbers, the cure for cancer, or any other verifiable information that you could not have possibly known, then there might be something there.

Overreaching Conclusions. Having a warm feeling inside and claiming that it is communication with a specific being is like seeing a blinking light in the sky and claiming that it is an alien spaceship from a specific planet. It is our desire to know things that results in what is referred to as a confabulation, or a combination of facts and fantasy to produce a plausible story, often consistent with one's world view. When we bend a spoon and it feels like we did not exert enough force to bend it, we can only say that we bent a spoon and it feels like we did not exert enough force to bend it; we can't say that "mental energy bent it." When we have a dream about a loved one who passed away, we can only say that we had a dream about a loved one who passed away; we can't say a loved one visited us from beyond in our dream. And when we have a feeling of bliss, we can only say that we had a feeling of bliss; we can't say that the bliss is actually the love of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

Evidence. What evidence do you have for your interpretation of the experience aside from "I just know"? Do you have any medically verifiable implants from the aliens that abducted you? Do you have any demonstrable supernatural powers from the gods that bestowed them upon you? Did your deceased great great grandfather give you the whereabouts of the burial site of the family's fortune? If you have no evidence, you may want to seriously consider that this personal experience of yours might be better interpreted as a very common and normal event that took place in your own mind, with no other beings present.

Of course, any experience you have takes place "in your mind," but the question is, does your interpretation of that experience represent an objective reality that involves interaction with other beings or objectively real places? While it may seem as any supernatural experience would not be subject to evidence, there is a line of reasoning one can follow to assess the probability of such a supernatural event, based on the probability of the naturalistic alternative explanations. While one should not completely rule out magic or the supernatural, it should never be the default position—and it should never be assumed due to a lack of careful reasoning, critical thinking, or natural explanations.

Podcast Episode: Personal Religious Experiences: Real or Imagined?

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