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Whether or not a divine power truly does exist might be a matter of opinion, but the neurophysiological effects of religious belief are scientific facts that can be accurately measured. Here, we take a look at some of these effects, as shown by the latest research.
Whether you are a staunch atheist, a reserved agnostic, or a devout believer, you are equally likely to find the effects of religion on human brains astonishing.
Religious belief can increase our lifespan and help us better cope with disease.
And, research in the field of “neurotheology” — or the neuroscience of theological belief — has made some surprising discoveries that are bound to change how we think about spirituality.
For instance, some scientists suggest that religious experience activates the same brain circuits as sex and drugs.
Other research has suggested that damage to a certain brain region can make you feel as though someone’s in the room when nobody’s there. Such findings have intriguing implications for how religion affects health, and vice-versa.
Also, do the neurobiological underpinnings of religious experience mean that it could be artificially recreated? If a divine experience proves to be biologically predetermined, does having the right scientific information enable us to create the illusion of a god?
Below, we take a look at some of these questions. While researchers may not have all the answers yet, pieces of the puzzle are coming together to form a scientific picture of divinity that is shaping up to be quite different from those we find in the holy books.
Different religions have different effects(Video) The Believing Brain: Evolution, Neuroscience, and the Spiritual Instinct
Different religions have different effects
Dr. Andrew Newberg, who is a professor of neuroscience and the director of the Research Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at the Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Villanova, PA, explains that different religious practices have different effects on one’s brain.
Namely, different religions activate brain regions differently.
The researcher, who literally “wrote the book” on neurotheology, draws from his numerous studies to show that both meditating Buddhists and praying Catholic nuns, for instance, have increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain.
These areas are
Also, both prayer and meditation correlate with a decreased activity in the parietal lobes, which are responsible for processing temporal and spatial orientation.
Nuns, however — who pray using words rather than relying on visualization techniques used in meditation — show increased activity in the language-processing brain areas of the subparietal lobes.
But, other religious practices can have the opposite effect on the same brain areas. For instance, one of the most recent studies co-authored by Dr. Newberg shows that intense Islamic prayer — “which has, as its most fundamental concept, the surrendering of one’s self to God” — reduces the activity in the prefrontal cortex and the frontal lobes connected with it, as well as the activity in the parietal lobes.
A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.
Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.
When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.
These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.
“When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,” says first study author Michael Ferguson.
These findings echo those of
The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase “endogenous morphine.” Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum “Religion is the opium of the people” a new level of meaning.
Some recent advances in neuroimaging techniques allow us to understand how our brains “create” a spiritual or mystical experience. What causes the feeling that someone else is present in the room, or that we’ve stepped outside of our bodies and into another dimension?
“In the last few years,” says Dr. Anderson, “brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”
Prof. James Giordano, from the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., agrees. “We are able to even understand when a person gets into ‘ecstasy mode,'” he says, and to identify specific brain areas that participate in this process.
“When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [which is a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe] or our prefrontal cortex increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change,” Prof. Giordano explains in an interview for Medium.
Research backs him up. A study of Vietnam veterans shows that those who had been injured in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were more likely to report mystical experiences.
“These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to.”
Prof. James Giordano
“If ‘beings’ join the mystical experience,” Prof. Giordano goes on, “we can say that the activity of the left and right temporal lobe network (found at the bottom middle part of the cortex) has changed.”
The parietal lobes are also the areas that Dr. Newberg’s studies found to have lower brain activity during prayer.
Given that the neurological roots of religious experiences can be traced so accurately with the help of the latest neuroscientific technologies, does this mean that we could — in principle — “create” these experiences on demand?
This is not just a theoretical question because in the 1990s, Dr. Michael Persinger — the director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada — designed what came to be known as the “God Helmet.”
This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields.
In Dr. Persinger’s experiments, about 20 religious people — which amounts to just 1 percent of the participants — reported feeling the presence of God or seeing him in the room when wearing the device. However, 80 percent of the participants felt a presence of some sort, which they were reluctant to call “God.”
Speaking about the experiments, Dr. Persinger says, “I suspect most people would call the ‘vague, all-around-me’ sensations ‘God’ but they are reluctant to employ the label in a laboratory.”
“If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged.”(Video) Andrew Newberg: Is The Human Brain Hardwired for God? | Big Think
Dr. Michael Persinger
We asked Dr. Newberg what he thought about such attempts to elicit religious experiences. “We have to be careful about how similar such experiences are,” he cautioned.
However, he went on, humans have historically sought out ways to evoke religious experiences in various ways, from meditation and prayer to substances that can induce psychedelic experiences — which are “perceived as just as spiritual and real as more ‘natural’ experiences.”
So, whether it’s psychedelics or the God helmet, “as we develop a more detailed understanding of these techniques and their effects, we may do better at figuring out how to enhance their effects,” Dr. Newberg told us.
In the meantime, neuroscientists continue to work hard in order to understand what goes on in the religious brain. “In spite of how much the field [of neurotheology] has grown, we are really only scratching the surface,” said Dr. Newberg.
He shared with us some of the directions he hopes this field will evolve in, saying, “[N]eurotheology can 1) explore how religion and spirituality affect physical and mental health in terms of beliefs and practices.”
Furthermore, neurotheology is able to “help with the development of therapeutic approaches to helping people with various disorders including neurological and psychiatric conditions.”
Finally, neuroscience will hopefully also provide us with some much-needed answers to “age-old epistemological questions about the nature of reality,” consciousness, and spirituality.
Until we gain such answers, however, religion is unlikely to go anywhere. The architecture of our brains won’t allow it, says Dr. Newberg, and religion fulfills needs that our brains are designed to have.
“I would argue that until our brain undergoes a fundamental change, religion and spirituality will be with us for a long time.”
Dr. Andrew Newberg(Video) Lisa Miller, PhD On The Neuroscience Of Spirituality | Rich Roll Podcast
The neuroscience of religious and spiritual experience? ›
The neuroscience of religion, also known as neurotheology and as spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms. It is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena.How does neuroscience explain spiritual and religious experiences? ›
The parietal lobe gives us a sense of orientation in space and time, thus the “spacelessness” and “timelessness” often reported in spiritual experiences, Newberg and team found. “Mystical experiences are events that can shake up your world in a single moment,” Andrew Newberg tells me.What part of the brain controls religious experience? ›
Among the limbic structures that have been associated with religious belief, the most frequently credited are the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. Neurotheologians point to changes in functional MRI scans in these areas as research subjects engage in religious meditation.What happens to the brain during spiritual experiences? ›
These findings tell us that spiritual experiences shift perception, and can moderate the effects of stress on mental health. This study saw decreased activation in the parts of the brain responsible for stress and increased activity in the parts of the brain responsible for connection with others.What is spiritual and religious experience? ›
A religious experience (sometimes known as a spiritual experience, sacred experience, or mystical experience) is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework. The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of Western society.What happens to your brain when you speak in tongues? ›
"The part of the brain that normally makes them feel in control has been essentially shut down." Another notable change was increased activity in the parietal region--the part of the brain that "takes sensory information and tries to create a sense of self and how you relate to the rest of the world," Newberg says.Where is the God spot in the brain? ›
In 2012, a neurotheology-based study concluded that "spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain." New research (2021) suggests that the brain's "God Spot" may be rooted in neural circuits tied to the periaqueductal gray area of the brainstem.What part of the brain is for spirituality? ›
Scientists at the Yale University have unearthed the exact spot in human brain which activates when people experience spirituality. According to Marc Potenza, a psychiatry professor at Yale University, 'parietal cortex' in human brain is the area associated with spirituality.What part of the brain processes spirituality? ›
The portion of the brain that processes spiritual experiences is the "parietal cortex" or the "left inferior parietal lobule" to be specific. This part of the brain is also activated whenever an individual becomes aware of himself or others. It is also stimulated when a person uses his or her attention skills.What side of the brain is spiritual? ›
High-profile figures have championed the right brain for its creativity, intuition and spirituality, while maintaining the left brain is the locus of logic, analysis and pragmatism.
What happens to the brain when you pray? ›
First, engaging in 12 minutes of personal reflection and prayer each day makes a profound impact on our brain. It strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances our social awareness and empathy and helps us love our neighbor by developing a heightened sense of compassion and subduing negative emotions.Does spirituality release dopamine? ›
Regardless of what you believe, spiritual experiences have been observed creating physical and chemical responses in the human brain. Finding a way to connect with the universe or a higher power releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and reward.What happens to the brain after enlightenment? ›
So when people have that experience and they suddenly now realize what their beliefs are in spirituality or their beliefs are about life or death or whatever there's some incredible change that occurs perhaps in many different areas of our brain that really rearranges the way the person thinks, the way they feel, the ...Is religious experience an illusion? ›
Perhaps religious experiences are not pure delusions or illusions. Perhaps religious experiences are only encountered by those who have an ability to experience them. Perhaps there are people, even many people, who are "deaf" to such experiences.Do religious experiences prove the existence of God? ›
A religious experience is when someone feels they have had a direct or personal experience of God. It is argued that if someone feels they have experienced God, this will be the most convincing proof of God's existence because they have personally experienced or felt God for themselves.What causes mystical experience? ›
Reveries can also be induced voluntarily. During waking consciousness, visualizing and dwelling emotionally on a mental image can induce a reverie in which a vision may occur. Mystical use has also been made of hypnagogic states, which immediately precede sleep.Does prayer rewire your brain? ›
And Your Reality Scans show that people who spend untold hours in prayer or meditation go dark in the parietal lobe, the brain area that helps create a sense of self. A researcher says these people may be rewriting the neural connections in their brains — altering how they see the world.What language is spoken in tongues? ›
In short, speaking in tongues is a real language. It is not a known, natural language, but it is a supernatural language that is meant for direct communication with God. It is a language that cannot be understood without divine interpretation. The only thing that makes tongues real is faith.Is speaking in tongues a form of hysteria? ›
The early twentieth- century literature on glossolalia carried the implication that it was a form of mass hysteria or psychosis. This view was successfully challenged by Boisen (1939), Alland (1962) and others.What does religion do to the brain? ›
A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities. Share on Pinterest Devoutly religious participants showed increased activity in the brain's nucleus accumbens.
Is there a God gene? ›
The God gene hypothesis proposes that human spirituality is influenced by heredity and that a specific gene, called vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2), predisposes humans towards spiritual or mystic experiences.How does faith affect the brain? ›
Now there is growing evidence that spiritual practices have a beneficial and measurable effect on the brain. In his book “How God Changes Your Brain,” Andrew Newberg reports that meditation improves memory and reduces stress, and how you view God can affect the structure of your brain.Does prayer increase serotonin? ›
For Carly and countless others, prayer plays an important role in overall well-being. It can influence everything from how stressed we are to how well we bond with other people. It can increase our positive brain chemicals—like dopamine and serotonin—while also leading to improved self-control.What is the study of spirituality called? ›
Spiritual Psychology, also often called Transpersonal Psychology, is the study of human consciousness and how it relates to human behavior.Is religion hardwired in the brain? ›
The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.What makes an experience spiritual? ›
A spiritual experience is described as an incident that goes beyond human understanding in how this experience could have happened in the first place. These types of experiences include situations like dodging death when you were in an otherwise dangerous scenario or unexplainable monetary gain.What does spiritual enlightenment feel like? ›
It literally means “to suffer with.” People who are in the process of a spiritual awakening begin to notice both a more all-encompassing empathy and a more action-oriented compassion that feels normal, natural, and fulfilling. One area of compassion that is often forgotten is self-compassion.What does praising God do to the brain? ›
Researchers have found that when we worship God, there is an increase in BPNF, which is a neurotransmitter that helps us grow healthy brain cells. Every morning, we wake up with 300 million more brain cells. When we worship, gamma waves are created in our brain that can actually help us feel the presence of God.Which part of the brain is linked to mystical experiences? ›
Voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping analysis showed that lesions to frontal and temporal brain regions were linked with greater mystical experiences. Such regions included the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and middle/superior temporal cortex (TC).What part of the brain controls spirituality? ›
The portion of the brain that processes spiritual experiences is the "parietal cortex" or the "left inferior parietal lobule" to be specific. This part of the brain is also activated whenever an individual becomes aware of himself or others. It is also stimulated when a person uses his or her attention skills.
Is religion hardwired in the brain? ›
The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.How does faith affect the brain? ›
Now there is growing evidence that spiritual practices have a beneficial and measurable effect on the brain. In his book “How God Changes Your Brain,” Andrew Newberg reports that meditation improves memory and reduces stress, and how you view God can affect the structure of your brain.What happens to your brain when you pray? ›
First, engaging in 12 minutes of personal reflection and prayer each day makes a profound impact on our brain. It strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances our social awareness and empathy and helps us love our neighbor by developing a heightened sense of compassion and subduing negative emotions.What part of the brain makes you believe in God? ›
Belief, whether religious or nonreligious, is associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), a brain region important for self-representation, emotional associations, reward, and goal-driven behavior.How does God change your brain? ›
Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world.What happens when you have a spiritual awakening? ›
The spiritual awakening.
You begin to clear certain things out of your life (habits, relationships, old belief systems) and invite new, more enriching things in. You may feel like something is missing, but you haven't quite figured it out yet. During this phase, it's common to feel lost, confused, and down.
The God gene hypothesis proposes that human spirituality is influenced by heredity and that a specific gene, called vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2), predisposes humans towards spiritual or mystic experiences.What is the study of spirituality called? ›
Spiritual Psychology, also often called Transpersonal Psychology, is the study of human consciousness and how it relates to human behavior.Are humans wired to worship? ›
Anthropologists have noted that worship is a universal urge hard-wired (by God) into the fiber of our being. Humans seem to have an inbuilt need to connect with something greater than ourselves.What is God brain? ›
Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a "God spot," one distinct area of the brain responsible for spirituality. Now, researchers have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon, and multiple areas of the brain are responsible for the many aspects of spiritual experiences.
How does the God helmet work? ›
TMS uses single, paired, and repetitive pulses of high intensity to penetrate the cranium. In contrast, Persinger's apparatus uses weak complex magnetic signals patterned after physiological processes, such as one derived from limbic burst firing.Does being religious change your brain? ›
It is a surprising result, given that many prior studies have shown religion to have potentially beneficial effects on brain function, anxiety, and depression. A number of studies have evaluated the acute effects of religious practices, such as meditation and prayer, on the human brain.Does praying release dopamine? ›
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that praying increases the levels of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is the hormone that is associated with happiness – it's the same hormone that is released in your brain when you eat chocolate.What does praising God do to the brain? ›
Researchers have found that when we worship God, there is an increase in BPNF, which is a neurotransmitter that helps us grow healthy brain cells. Every morning, we wake up with 300 million more brain cells. When we worship, gamma waves are created in our brain that can actually help us feel the presence of God.