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Neurotheology: Interpretation of Reality or Creation of Religion

K. Smythe's picture

            Spiritual experience is one of the most complex functions of our minds.  The controversy over the existence of a higher being, or over who or what that higher being is, is one that has lasted throughout time.  Most recently, this argument has been taken to the scientific level.  Scientists, believers and nonbelievers alike, are trying to explain the underpinnings of religion and mystical experience in the brain, a new field known as neurotheology (Gajilan, 2007).  They tend to agree that there is a connection between religion and the brain; however the interpretation of their observations remains hotly debated.

            The first distinction to be made is the difference between religion as a belief system and a mystical religious experience.  Religion or spirituality is an intensely complex individual, cultural and even political set of beliefs.  One explanation of religion is that it is the anthropomorphism of the world at large.  Evolutionarily this would have been advantageous on a smaller scale (individual objects which actually could have been living and dangerous) as a “better safe than sorry” defense mechanism, however it may have been generalized over time to the entire environment and renamed religion (Horgan, 2006).  In looking at religion as a set of beliefs it is interesting to measure it against other beliefs that we hold.  It has been found that the brain does not make a clear distinction between objective and subjective beliefs and for this reason religion in the brain functions like any other belief system.  Analysis of possible beliefs occurs in “higher” brain areas while the final decision of whether a fact is “believable” is made in deeper, more “primitive” brain areas.  If a statement is deemed true (a belief), the ventral medial prefrontal cortex is activated.  This area of the brain also activates in association with reward, emotion and taste.  Statements that are not believed activate areas in the brain associated with taste, pain perception and disgust.  It appears that religious beliefs are processed and retrieved in the same way that logical (for example mathematical) beliefs and other assertions are (Van Biema, 2007). 

             Religious or mystical experiences occur most often during deep meditation or prayer and are described as a feeling of connectedness with the world and a loss of sense of individual existence.  This loss of sense of time and space is replaced with an intense feeling of unity and a sense of being part of something greater than oneself (Gajilan, 2007; Horgan, 2006; Begley, 2001).  These experience have been studied using brain imaging such as single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) where a radioactive substance is injected into a person and the active brain areas which require higher oxygen levels and thus blood flow bring higher concentrations of the radioactive particles which can then be visualized as a three dimensional image (Begley, 2001).  SPECT has been used on people during mystical experiences during in meditation or prayer to help understand the brain functions during these events.  The brain scans have shown that in comparison to non-mystical experiences, activity of the post superior parietal lobe, or orientation area, goes down.  This area is responsible for relating our bodies to the external world (Horgan, 2006).  The left orientation area is responsible for physically delimiting the body.  Lowering activity in this region could be related to the sense of connectedness and unity with the world that often accompanies mystical experience.  The right orientation area is responsible for physical space in which the body exists and the body’s relation to that space.  Lowering activity in this area could create the sense of infinite space that is associated with mystical experience (Begley, 2001).  Patients with damage to the orientation area have a hard time distinguishing themselves from the world even spatially and may have a hard time navigating in space (Horgan, 2006). 

            Another area of interest that showed abnormal activity was the temporal lobe.  It is believed that left temporal lobe is responsible for our sense of self.  Abnormal activity in this left temporal lobe, especially in relation to the right, may create a mismatch of neurological input that is then attributed to an external “sensed presence” (God) by the brain.  The temporal lobe is also necessary for speech perception.  It is possible that our brain will misattribute inner speech to an external source (God) when sensory information is lacking or there is a mismatch of neurological signals within the brain.  It is believed that stress, anxiety, low oxygen levels, low blood sugar, and fatigue can all cause changes in activity in the temporal lobe and this may be part of the explanation as to why those in need, suffering from the above symptoms, are more likely to “find God” or have a “religious experience” than others (Begley, 2001).  The idea that the temporal lobe could be involved in religious or mystical experience is reinforced by studies done with temporal-lobe-epilepsy studies.  This disease causes a burst of activity in the temporal lobe and is often associated with vivid religious visions and voices.  An attempt has been made to simulate temporal lobe activity to induce mystical experience however results have been very conflicting.  To induce such activity a helmet is electromagnetically rigged to activate the temporal lobe.   On study sites 80% (versus 15% control) of participants experienced some sort of “spiritual or supernatural” experience while another showed that there was no difference between the control and experimental groups (Horgan, 2006; Begley, 2001).

            Other areas of the brain that showed different levels of activity included the amygdale.  The amygdale is involved in environmental and fear awareness.  During mystical experience, activity in this area of the brain decreases.  This could be associated with the lack of external sensory input during deep meditation or prayer.  Activity in the frontal lobe, associated with higher thinking and concentration, increases during mystical experience.  This may be associated with the concentration necessary for such endeavors and the deep thought often associated with praying (Begley, 2001).

            Religious rituals also often elicit similar experiences to those often associated with meditation of prayer (unity or connectedness with the greater world).  A possible explanation is that like meditation or prayer, these rituals cut out most sensory input by focusing on one very intense one.  The deprives the orientation area of input much like prayer or meditation and thus the mind has difficulty distinguishing between self and environment causing a sense of overwhelming unity with the world (Begley, 2001).

            An explanation should also be put forth for why not everyone has mystical experiences.  Is it that only some of us have the appropriate proteins to process incoming information from a higher power, or that not all of us have learned to control our brain’s functions through prayer or meditation and thus have not had a such an experience.  Religion and mystical experience are cross cultural phenomena found throughout the world and throughout time.  The broad reach of very similar religious experience lends itself to a biologically based, evolutionarily conserved mechanism in the brain.  However, none of the studies done so far show anything conclusive except that the brain does function differently during a mystical or spiritual experience (Horgan, 2006; Gajilan, 2007).  Believers would say that this is the brain perceiving a very real force or entity-God.  The brain regions are associated with such an experience because God needs a way to communicate and thus there must be a part of the brain that is capable of this communication.  Nonbelievers would argue that activity in these regions of the brain is simply being interpreted as an external force-again God-and that this perception is simply a perception of our brain physically functioning.  An evolutionary view suggests that religion has formed due to a combination of the physical function of the brain and the cultural and individual needs of a society (Gajilan, 2007).  All of these arguments are valid, and none can be proved or disproved.  All that is certain for now is that the brain is active during spiritual experience.  Whether the spiritual experience is a creation of the brains circuitry or the brain is simply reacting to a higher power may never be known.




Works Cited


Gajilan, A. Chris.  “Are Humans Hard-Wired For Faith?”.  CNN.  5 Apr. 2007  


Van Biema, David.  “What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith”.  TIME. 14 Dec. 2007.,8599,1694723,00.html?cnn=yes  


Begley, Sharon.  “Your Brain on Religion: Mystic Visions or Brain Circuits at Work?”.  Newsweek.  7 May 2001.  


Horgan, John.  “The God Experiments”.  Discover.  20 Nov. 2006. 


Anonymous's picture

Depression and oceanic feelings seem to be mutually exclusive.

When I suffered from extreme depression I seemed to be blind to any finer feelings of beauty, or oceanicness at all. I do think that my depression was part of a growth process in which ecstasy and pessimism were integrated in various ways. I go along with the naturalistic explanations, because I think oceanicness is not to be understood as an inner or outer event.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain and "oceanic feelings"

Lots of interesting stuff here, including the notion that "not everyone has mystical experiences." Freud, for example, in Civilization and its Discontents, tried to account for "oceanic feelings" but acknowledged that he'd never experienced them. It would be interesting to explore brain differences that might account for that. I wonder if "oceanic feelings' and depression are related ... as opposites?