01 Dec

While not as nefarious as religion, belief in psi (that is, psychic phenomena) shares a lot of the same failures of critical thinking and nonscientific reasoning as religion does. Psi, to me, is basically a belief in what I call “natural supernaturalism”. Psi is basically supernaturalism dressed up in the garments of natural and/or unknown phenomena. For example, many psi proponents cling to a sort of “psi-of-the-gaps” when it comes to the existence and cause of consciousness. The mechanics behind consciousness are not completely known, but at the same time they are not completely unknown either.

If psi were a real phenomenon, then much of what we know about physics would have to be thrown out the window. Sound, for example, cannot be explained by psi. Sound only exists when there is a physical medium for sound waves to travel on. We need physical eardrums and physical nerves connected to our brain in order to interact with this physical medium and discern sounds. But psi proponents claim that people who have Near Death Experiences (NDEs) can hear things while floating outside of their bodies! By the psi-ists own definition, this floating mind outside of a human body has no physical manifestation so the psi-ist needs to come up with a mechanism for air (or some other media) to interact with this non-corporeal entity.

This is one of many problems facing psi. One of many.

Anyway, once positing the existence of non-corporeal entities, it’s a small leap to positing the existence of an all powerful non-corporeal entity that has always existed. And this is (or at least should be!) anathema to any nontheist who claims to believe in psi.

This post is mainly acting as an as an archive to some good scientific info related to neuroscience. I think I’ll post more as I come across more good anti-psi neurology articles.

A decade ago, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg did a series of scans on Buddhists while they were meditating. What he found was fascinating. Bob Holmes in New Scientist Magazine (21 April 2001), reported the following:

The researchers found intense activity in the parts of the brain that regulate attention–a sign of the meditators’ deep concentration. But they saw something else, too. During meditation, part of the parietal lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was much less active than when the volunteers were merely sitting still. With a thrill, Newberg and d’Aquili realised that this was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originates.
Broadly speaking, the left-hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual’s sense of their own body image, while its right-hemisphere equivalent handles its context–the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut these areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.

“When you look at people in meditation, they really do turn off their sensations to the outside world. Sights and sounds don’t disturb them any more. That may be why the parietal lobe gets no input,” says Newberg. Deprived of their usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other begin to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.

More recently, Newberg has repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns in prayer. The nuns–whose prayer centers on words, rather than images–showed activation of the language areas of the brain. But they, too, shut down the same self regions of the brain that the meditators did as their sense of oneness reached its peak.

This sense of unity with the Universe isn’t the only characteristic of intense religious experiences. They also carry a hefty emotional charge, a feeling of awe and deep significance. Neuroscientists generally agree that this sensation originates in a region of the brain distinct from the parietal lobe: the “emotional brain”, or limbic system, lying deep within the temporal lobes on the sides of the brain.

Neuroscience can now duplicate the mystical experiences claimed by religious people over the years in two different ways. One is through the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as ketamine and psilocybin. The other is through electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.

Karl Jansen, M.D., Ph.D., a is a leading neuroscientist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In an article entitled, “Neuroscience, Ketamine, and the Near Death Experience,” published in The Near-Death Experience: A Reader (ed. Lee Worth Bailey and Jenny L. Yates) he writes:

There is overwhelming evidence that the mind is produced by the brain. The effects on the mind of adding drugs to the brain, and the religious experiences which sometimes result, provide further evidence (p. 267).

Jansen’s research shows that drugs such as ketamine produce out of the body experiences or the sensation of experiencing the divine which are virtually identical to many near death experiences.

Brain scientists have also found that electrode stimulation of the temporal lobes evokes experiences which become part of the subjective stream of consciousness, embedded into the very fabric of the personality, such that the personality, and even sexual orientation may be altered. Moreover, patients may experience profound visual and auditory hallucinations and even feel as if they have left their bodies and are floating in space or soaring across the heavens (Rhawn Joseph, Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience , 3rd Edition, chapter 9).

Newberg first took baseline images of the brains of the meditators to use as a standard for comparison (Newberg 5). It was important that these scans of the brain be taken while the subjects were at rest so that brain activity while one is simply relaxed could be differentiated from brain activity while one is having a spiritual experience. The baseline scans showed an “even distribution of activity throughout the brain,” characterized by a large amount of activity in the posterior, superior parietal lobe and a moderate amount in the prefrontal cortex (Newberg 4).1
The subjects then meditated. When they reached the peak, they pulled on a string attached at one end to their finger and at the other to Dr. Newberg.2 This was the cue for Newberg to inject the radioactive tracer into the IV connected to the subject. Because the tracer almost instantly “locks” onto parts of the brain to indicate their activity levels, the SPECT gives a picture of the brain essentially at that peak moment (Newberg 3). The results revealed a marked decrease in the activity of the posterior, superior parietal lobe and a marked increase in the activity of the prefrontal cortex, predominantly on the right side of the brain
The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation
To further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer.
Doctors removed neurons from the 48 glioma patients to stem the spread of their tumours, whereas the people with meningiomas had tumour cells removed, but no neurons.
Both before and not long after the patients received this surgery Urgesi’s team gave them a battery of personality tests. In particular, the researchers were interested in a personality trait known as self-transcendence.

People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.


Meditative practices typically require several coordinated cognitive activities. This study measured changes in cerebral blood flow during “verbal” based meditation by Franciscan nuns involving the internal repetition of a particular phrase. These results are compared with those we previously described in eight Buddhist meditators who use a type of “visualization” technique. Three experienced practitioners of verbal meditation were injected via i.v. at rest with 260 MBq of Tc-99m HMPAO and scanned 30 min. later on a triple head SPECT camera for 45 min. Following the baseline scan, subjects meditated for approximately 40 min. at which time they were injected with 925 MBq of HMPAO while they continued to meditate for 10 min. more (total of 50 min. of meditation). The injection during meditation was designed not to disturb practice. Subjects were scanned 20 min. later for 30 min. Counts were obtained for regions of interest for major brain structures and normalized to whole-brain blood flow. Compared to baseline, mean verbal meditation scans showed increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex (7.1%), inferior parietal lobes (6.8%), and inferior frontal lobes (9.0%). There was a strong inverse correlation between the blood flow, change in the prefrontal cortex and in the ipsilateral superior parietal lobe (p<.01). This study on a limited number of subjects demonstrated the feasibility of studying different types of meditation with neuroimaging techniques, suggested that several coordinated cognitive processes occur during meditation, and also raised important methodological issues. 

V.S. Ramachandran says that we have mirror neurons that make us literally feel what others feel and that we have neurons in our limbs that cancel this actual feeling, and that when you lose an arm you can actually feel what you see happening to others in your phantom limb.

At this point, though, a psi believer will repeat the mantra that “correlation doesn’t imply causation”. This is simply taking a tenet of skepticism and reducing it to the absurd. If we have no reason to posit more entities, then we shouldn’t do so unnecessarily. We know that only beings with a central nervous system possess consciousness. This is a pretty robust correlation. The psi-ist, in order to cogently argue against this very well established empirical fact, should produce some instances of consciousness that exist that isn’t in some way connected to some sort of physical central nervous system. The only being that I know that fits this description is a personal god.

Natural supernaturalism.
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Posted by on December 1, 2010 in psi, supernaturalism


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