Understanding the Brain


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Neurotheology, also known as spiritual neuroscience,[1] is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. Proponents of neurotheology say there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious.[2] The subject has formed the basis of several popular science books.[3][4][5]


Neurotheology has been defined as "science’s attempt at explaining religion within the physical aspect of the brain using rational thought.”

Neurotheology attempts to explain the neurological basis for religious experiences, such as:


Aldous Huxley used the term neurotheology for the first time in the utopian novel Island. The discipline studies the cognitive neuroscience of religious experience and spirituality. The term is also sometimes used in a less scientific context or a philosophical context. Some of these uses, according to the mainstream scientific community, qualify as pseudoscience. Huxley used it mainly in a philosophical context.

The use of the term neurotheology in published scientific work is currently uncommon. A search on the citation indexing service provided by Institute for Scientific Information returns five articles. Three of these are published in the journal Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, while two are published in American Behavioral Scientist. Work on the neural basis of spirituality has, however, occurred sporadically throughout the 20th century.

Theoretical work

In an attempt to focus and clarify what was a growing interest in this field, in 1994 educator and businessman Laurence O. McKinney published the first book on the subject, titled "Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century", written for a popular audience but also promoted in the theological journal Zygon.[6] According to McKinney, neurotheology sources the basis of religious inquiry in relatively recent developmental neurophysiology. According to McKinney's theory, pre-frontal development, in humans, creates an illusion of chronological time as a fundamental part of normal adult cognition past the age of three. The inability of the adult brain to retrieve earlier images experienced by an infantile brain creates questions such as "where did I come from" and "where does it all go", which McKinney suggests led to the creation of various religious explanations. The experience of death as a peaceful regression into timelessness as the brain dies won praise from readers as varied as author Arthur C. Clarke, eminent theologian Harvey Cox, and the Dalai Lama and sparked a new interest in the field.

Andrew B. Newberg and others describe neurological processes which are driven by the repetitive, rhythmic stimulation which is typical of human ritual, and which contribute to the delivery of transcendental feelings of connection to a universal unity. They posit, however, that physical stimulation alone is not sufficient to generate transcendental unitive experiences. For this to occur they say there must be a blending of the rhythmic stimulation with ideas. Once this occurs "…ritual turns a meaningful idea into a visceral experience."[7] Moreover they say that humans are compelled to act out myths by the biological operations of the brain on account of what they call the "inbuilt tendency of the brain to turn thoughts into actions".

Based on current neuroscientific research, Eugen Drewermann, one of today's most prominent and controversial theologians in Europe, developed in two monumental volumes (Modern Neurology and the Question of God), published in 2006 and 2007, a radical critique of traditional conceptions of God and the soul and a sweeping reinterpretation of religion in light of neurology.[8]

However, it has also been argued "that neurotheology should be conceived and practiced within a theological framework."[9]

Experimental work

Magnetic stimulation studies

Early studies in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to use EEGs to study brain wave patterns correlated with "spiritual" states. During the 1980s Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of human subjects with a weak magnetic field using an apparatus that popularly became known as the "God helmet".[10] His subjects claimed to have a sensation of "an ethereal presence in the room".

This work has been criticised.

Neuropsychology and Neuroimaging

The first researcher to note and catalog the abnormal experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) was neurologist Norman Geschwind, who noted a constellation of symptoms, including hypergraphia, hyperreligiosity, fainting spells, and pedantism, often collectively ascribed to a condition known as Geschwind syndrome.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explored the neural basis of the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE using the galvanic skin response, which correlates with emotional arousal, to determine whether the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE was due to an overall heightened emotional state or was specific to religious stimuli. By presenting subjects with neutral, sexually arousing and religious words while measuring GSR, Ramachandran was able to show that patients with TLE showed enhanced emotional responses to the religious words, diminished responses to the sexually charged words, and normal responses to the neutral words. These results suggest that the medial temporal lobe is specifically involved in generating some of the emotional reactions associated with religious words, images and symbols.[11]

Some studies have used neuroimaging to localize brain regions that are active, or differentially active, during experiences that subjects associate with "spiritual" feelings or images. David Wulf, a psychologist at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, suggests that current brain imaging studies, along with the consistency of spiritual experiences across cultures, history, and religions, "suggest a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain", echoing McKinney's primary thesis that feelings associated with religious experience are normal aspects of brain function under extreme circumstances rather than communication from God.[12]

Research by Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, on neural imaging of Carmelite nuns while in prayer, has shown religious and spiritual experiences to include several brain regions.[13]


Some scientists working in the field hypothesize that the basis of spiritual experience arises in neurological physiology. Speculative suggestions have been made that an increase of N-Dimethyltryptamine levels in the pineal gland contribute to spiritual experiences.[14] Scientific studies confirming this have yet to be published. It has also been suggested that stimulation of the temporal lobe by psychoactive ingredients of Magic Mushrooms mimics religious experiences.[15] This hypothesis has found laboratory validation with respect to Psilocybin.[16][17]


An attempt to marry a materialistic approach like neuroscience to spirituality attracts much criticism. Some of the criticism is philosophical, dealing with the (perceived) irreconcilability between science and spirituality, while some is more methodological, dealing with the issues of studying an experience as subjective as spirituality.

Philosophical criticism

Critics of this approach, like philosopher Ken Wilber and religious scholar Huston Smith, see the more materialistic formulations of the approach as examples of reductionism and scientism that are only looking at the empirical aspects of the phenomena, and not including the possible validity of spiritual experience with all of its subjectivity.

Scientific criticism

In 2005, Pehr Granqvist, a psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, questioned Michael Persinger's findings in a paper published in Neuroscience Letters.[18] Granqvist et al. claimed that Persinger's work was not "double-blind." Participants were often graduate students who knew what sort of results to expect, and there was the risk that the experimenters expectations would be transmitted to subjects by unconscious cues. The participants were frequently given an idea of the purpose of the study by being asked to fill in questionnaires designed to test their suggestibility to paranormal experiences before the trials were conducted. Granqvist et al. failed to replicate Persinger's experiments double-blinded, and concluded that the presence or absence of the magnetic field had no relationship with any religious or spiritual experience reported by the participants, but was predicted entirely by their suggestibility and personality traits. Following the publication of this study, Persinger et al. responded both in Neuroscience Letters[19] and in a publicly-available email exchange between Persinger and Granqvist.[20]

See also


  1. Biello, David (2007-10-03). "Searching for God in the Brain". Scientific American. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=searching-for-god-in-the-brain. Retrieved 2009-03-22. 
  2. Gajilan, A. Chris (2007-04-05). "Are humans hard-wired for faith?". Cable News Network. http://cnn.health.printthis.clickability.com/pt/cpt?action=cpt&title=Are+humans+hard-wired+for+faith%3F+-+CNN.com&expire=&urlID=21822630&fb=Y&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnn.com%2F2007%2FHEALTH%2F04%2F04%2Fneurotheology%2Findex.html&partnerID=2012. Retrieved 2007-04-09. 
  3. Matthew Alper. The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God. http://www.godpart.com/. 
  4. James H. Austin. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=3236. 
  5. James H. Austin. Zen-Brain Reflections: Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness. http://mitpress.mit.edu/promotions/books/SP20060262012235. 
  6. Laurence O. McKinney (1994). Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century. American Institute for Mindfulness. ISBN 0-945724-01-2. 
  7. Newberg, Andrew B.; D'Aquili, Eugene G.; Rause, Vince (2002). Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 90. ISBN 0-345-44034-X. http://www.andrewnewberg.com/why.asp. 
  8. Eugen Drewermann (2006-2007). Atem des Lebens: Die moderne Neurologie und die Frage nach Gott. (Modern neurology and the question of God) Vol 1: Das Gehirn. Vol. 2: Die Seele.. Düsseldorf: Patmos Verlag. Vol. 1: 864; Vol. 2: 1072. ISBN Vol. 1: ISBN 3491210003; Vol. 2: ISBN 3491210011. http://www.freewebs.com/drewermann-eugen/booksbcher.htm. 
  9. Apfalter, Wilfried (2009). "Neurotheology: What Can We Expect from a (Future) Catholic Version?". Theology and Science 7: 163–174. 
  10. Persinger, M A (1983). "Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: a general hypothesis.". Perceptual and motor skills 57 (3 Pt 2): 1255–62. PMID 6664802. 
  11. Ramachandran, V. and Blakeslee (1998). Phantoms in the Brain. 
  12. McKinney, L (1994). Neurotheology:Virtual Religion in the 21st Century. 
  13. Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters. 26 June 2006. http://www.mapageweb.umontreal.ca/beauregm/Beauregard2006_CarmelitesfMRI.pdf. Retrieved 2010-05-09. 
  14. Strassman, R (2001). DMT: The Spiritual Molecule. Inner Traditions Bear and Company. ISBN 0892819278. 
  15. Skatssoon, Judy (2006-07-12). "Magic mushrooms hit the God spot". ABC Science Online. http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/health/HealthRepublish_1682610.htm. Retrieved 2006-07-13. 
  16. Griffiths, Rr; Richards, Wa; Johnson, Mw; McCann, Ud; Jesse, R (2008). "Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later.". Journal of psychopharmacology 22 (6): 621–32. doi:10.1177/0269881108094300. PMID 18593735. 
  17. Griffiths, R R; Richards, W A; McCann, U; Jesse, R (2006). "Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.". Psychopharmacology 187 (3): 268–83; discussion 284–92. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5. PMID 16826400. 
  18. Granqvist, Pehr, et al. (2005). "Sensed Presence and Mystical Experiences are Predicted by Suggestibility, Not by the Application of Transcranial Weak Complex Magnetic Fields.". Neuroscience Letters 379 (1): 1–6. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2004.10.057. PMID 15849873. 
  19. Persinger, Michael, et al. (2005). "A response to Granqvist et al. "Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak magnetic fields".". Neuroscience Letters 380 (1): 346–347. http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2005.03.060. 
  20. http://www.laurentian.ca/Laurentian/Home/Departments/Behavioural+Neuroscience/Correspondence/Email+2003.htm?Laurentian_Lang=en-CA

Further reading

  • Andrew Neher, The Psychology of Transcendence, Dover, 2nd ed 1990, ISBN 0-486-26167-0
  • Andrew B. Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, (1999), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, ISBN 0-8006-3163-3
  • Thomas B. Roberts, "Chemical Input — Religious Output: Entheogens" Chapter 10 in Where God and Science Meet: Vol. 3. The Psychology of Religious Experience edited by Robert McNamara. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
  • Gerald Wolf, (science-in-fiction novels) Der HirnGott; Dr. Ziethen Verlag 2005, Sich Verlag 2008, ISBN 978-3-9811692-8-7. Glaube mir, mich gibt es nicht; Sich Verlag 2009, ISBN 978-3-9812628-0-3.

External links