Above is an example of Google’s “Deep Dream” pattern-matching algorithm.
They programmed it to find dogs and pagodas, and no matter where you tell it to look, it will damn well find you some dogs and pagodas. Which makes it a pretty handy metaphor for delusion.
Scott Alexander suggests that dreams, drugs, religion, and schizophrenia all involve essentially the same “failure mode”.
Human brains are hard-wired to look for patterns, too, and we get big neurochemical rewards when we find (or create) one. But while we’re dreaming, or on DMT, or schizophrenic, or religious (the theory goes), this pattern-matching ability is completely disinhibited — so that patterns seem to emerge from meaningless noise. If you’re asleep, random brain activity gets stitched into a (bizarre) narrative. If you’re paranoid schizophrenic, innocuous social interactions become loaded with secret signals, and interpreted through the lens of a vast conspiracy. People on hallucinogens find the underlying fractal architecture of the universe in the spackling on the ceiling. And if you’re religious, you see the Blessed Virgin in your toast.
That’s a flippant summary, of course; there’s got to be at least some truth to this. Powerful religious experiences usually do involve a deep sense of clarity and connection and meaning that is, like a dream, very difficult to recapture after the fact. You can kind of remember how it felt, but the memory feels hollow somehow — like you forgot the central Truth that tied it all together. All of which are reasonable things to expect, if your pattern-matching algorithm was going temporarily bananas.
Psychologists would say that your conscious self has the more accurate interpretation of the dream. You haven’t forgotten some important fact that tied it all together — it never was tied together. One assumes that the same is true of profound religious experiences — the way you feel about them after you’ve “come down from the mountain” is what really happened, and that fading sense of contact with the divine is just your mental “immune system” mopping up erroneous patterns now that it’s functioning properly.
This model is pretty internally consistent — but it’s consistent because it’s recursive.
Once you’ve settled on a baseline “reality” (in this case, a mechanistic, materialistic, random universe), anything that calls that model into question can be dismissed as runaway pattern-matching. Almost no experience, no matter how powerful or vivid or “real”, could possibly falsify this model (unless God or your DMT spirit animal were deliberately trying to falsify it.)
It ignores the fact that conscious human minds also impose patterns on their observations, and that those patterns are not more obviously correct — they’re just harder to get away from. If you’re raised in a secular materialist society, your default pattern will be “random meaningless static”, and your waking mind will impose that pattern on all your experiences, whether it’s an obvious fit or not (just like the Peruvian peasant imposes Jesus on her breakfast.)
That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad pattern, necessarily; if you think the risk of a “false positive” (imposing meaning on a meaningless experience) is much more serious than the risk of a “false negative” (incorrectly discarding a meaningful experience), then a strong memetic defense against weird beliefs is probably a good thing. As a Mormon, it’s pretty clear what side of that question I come down on, but I can understand the appeal.
So what is happening to the brain when we have spiritual experiences?
I don’t think we can dismiss the role of hyperactive pattern-matching out of hand. Clearly something strange is happening in our brains when we feel that surge of intelligence and clarity — there must be some sensitivity that is getting cranked up to eleven. Some have speculated Joseph Smith’s seer stone worked by inducing this state of heightened sensitivity (essentially serving as a focus for meditation) and allowing him to receive revelations that he could not receive in a conscious state. I’m not convinced that that’s the whole story, but it probably helped.
The fact that these experiences feel a bit like dreaming is neither problematic nor surprising — we’re not obligated to accept the assumption that dreaming is wholly internal and random.
The fact that it has so much in common with hallucinogenic drugs, on the other hand, is a bit of a puzzle.
The Holy Spirit’s influence is both infallible and unmistakable — that’s what makes it a safe heuristic for testimony. If we’ve discovered a drug that can “fake” the experience of revelation, we’re in trouble. Admittedly, because I haven’t taken these drugs, I can’t say how analogous the experiences really are — but from a Mormon perspective, the weirdest thing about these experiences is how doctrinally sound they seem to be (despite being obtained in a seriously doctrinally-unsound way). It isn’t just that people think they’re hearing the voice of God — it’s that the voice seems to be saying basically true, good, wholesome, Mormony things. These guys aren’t being told to sacrifice their pets, or hold orgiastic black masses, or even vote Democrat. So, I dunno — it’s a pretty weird case, but if truth is being taught, the Spirit bears witness, right?
I don’t have any idea what to do with that information. It’s not impossible to imagine receiving true revelation from an iffy source (cf. the witch of En-dor); and it seems likely that these drugs would make you more sensitive to both friendly and hostile influences, or allow you to receive things you’re not really ready for. There’s probably a good reason that these states of consciousness require some discipline and spiritual maturity to come by “honestly”.