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. This contrasts
with the psychology of religion which studies mental, rather than
Proponents of the neuroscience of religion say there is a neurological
and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally
categorized as spiritual or religious. The field has formed the
basis of several popular science books, but has received
criticism from psychologists.
3 Theoretical work
4 Experimental work
4.1 Magnetic stimulation studies
Neuropsychology and neuroimaging
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
"Neurotheology" is a neologism that describes the scientific study of
the neural correlates of religious or spiritual beliefs, experiences
and practices. Other researchers prefer to use terms like "spiritual
neuroscience" or "neuroscience of religion". Researchers in the field
attempt to explain the neurological basis for religious experiences,
The perception that time, fear or self-consciousness have dissolved
Oneness with the universe
Altered states of consciousness
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
The use of the term neurotheology in published scientific work is
currently uncommon. A search on the citation indexing service provided
Institute for Scientific Information returns five articles. Three
of these are published in the journal Zygon: Journal of Religion &
Science, while two are published in American Behavioral Scientist.
Work on the neural basis of spirituality has, however, occurred
sporadically throughout the 20th century.
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. 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 "discovered is that intensely
focused spiritual contemplation triggers an alteration in the activity
of the brain that leads one to perceive transcendent religious
experiences as solid, tangible reality. In other words, the sensation
that Buddhists call oneness with the universe."
The radical Catholic theologian
Eugen Drewermann developed a
two-volume critique of traditional conceptions of
God and the soul and
a reinterpretation of religion (Modern
Neurology and the Question of
God) based on current neuroscientific research.
However, it has also been argued "that neurotheology should be
conceived and practiced within a theological framework."
Furthermore, it has been suggested that creating a separate category
for this kind of research is moot since conventional Behavioural and
Social Neurosciences disciplines can handle any empirical
investigation of this nature.
Various theories regarding the evolutionary origin of religion and the
evolutionary psychology of religion have been proposed.
Alister Hardy founded in 1969 a Religious Experience
Research Centre at Oxford after retiring from his post as Linacre
Professor of Zoology and citing William James's The Varieties of
Religious Experience (1902) set out to collect first-hand accounts of
numinous experiences. He was awarded the
Templeton Prize before his
death in 1985. His successor David Hay suggested in God’s Biologist:
A life of
Alister Hardy (2011) that the RERC later dispersed as
investigators turned to newer techniques of scientific investigation.
Magnetic stimulation studies
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" and reported that many
of his subjects claimed to experience a "sensed presence" during
stimulation. This work has been criticised, though some
researchers  have published a replication of one
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. dispute this. One
published attempt to create a "haunted room" using environmental
"complex" electromagnetic fields based on Persinger's theoretical and
experimental work did not produce the sensation of a "sensed presence"
and found that reports of unusual experiences were uncorrelated with
the presence or absence of these fields. As in the study by Granqvist
et al., reports of unusual experiences were instead predicted by the
personality characteristics and suggestibility of participants.
One experiment with a commercial version of the
God helmet found no
difference in response to graphic images whether the device was on or
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 set of religious behavioral traits associated
with TLE seizures. These include hypergraphia, hyperreligiosity,
reduced sexual interest, fainting spells, and pedantism, often
collectively ascribed to a condition known as Geschwind syndrome.
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explored the neural basis of the
hyperreligiosity seen in TLE using the galvanic skin response (GSR),
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. Ramachandran
presented two 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. This study was presented as an
abstract at a neuroscience conference and referenced in Ramachandran's
book, Phantoms in the Brain, but it has never been published in
the peer-reviewed scientific press.
Research by Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, using fMRI
on Carmelite nuns, has purported to show that religious and spiritual
experiences include several brain regions and not a single '
As Beauregard has said, "There is no
God spot in the brain. Spiritual
experiences are complex, like intense experiences with other human
beings." The neuroimaging was conducted when the nuns were asked
to recall past mystical states, not while actually undergoing them;
"subjects were asked to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most
intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of
the Carmelite Order." A 2011 study by researchers at the Duke
University Medical Center found hippocampal atrophy is associated with
older adults who report life-changing religious experiences, as well
as those who are "born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no
A 2016 study using fMRI found "a recognizable feeling central to ...
(Mormon)... devotional practice was reproducibly associated with
activation in nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and
frontal attentional regions.
Nucleus accumbens activation preceded
peak spiritual feelings by 1–3 s and was replicated in four separate
tasks. ... The association of abstract ideas and brain reward
circuitry may interact with frontal attentional and emotive salience
processing, suggesting a mechanism whereby doctrinal concepts may come
to be intrinsically rewarding and motivate behavior in religious
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,N-dimethyltryptamine
levels in the pineal gland contribute to spiritual
experiences. 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. This hypothesis has found laboratory validation with
respect to psilocybin.
Cognitive science of religion
Eight-circuit model of consciousness
Evolutionary origin of religions
God in a Pill?
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of science
Psychology of religion
Temporal lobe epilepsy
Third Man factor
Viruses of the Mind
Zen and the Brain
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Spirituality - Is This Your Brain On God? - (NPR
God on the Brain
Your Brain on Religion: Mystic visions or brain circuits at work?
Newsweek neurotheology article, May 2001)
Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics neurotheology resource
"This Is Your Brain on God" (Wired magazine, November 1999)
God in Mind neurotheology article
Survey of spiritual experiences, by the University of Pennsylvania
Neurotheology at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
2006 National Film Board of Canada documentary, Mystical Brain
Outline of neuroscience
Molecular cellular cognition
Neural network (artificial)
Neural network (biological)
Intraoperative neurophysiological monitoring