The interplay between Religious Experiences and the Brain

As Humans – Hydration, Exercise, and clean eating are vital to our health and well-being. But what about religious practices like prayer and meditation? Dr. Andrew Newburg, Professor at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, Studies the interplay between religious experiences and the brain.


As humans, hydration, exercise, and clean eating are vital to our health and well-being, but what about religious practices like prayer and meditation?

Dr. Andrew Newberg, Professor at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, studies the interplay between religious experiences and the brain.


Neurotheology is a field of study that seeks to understand the relationship between the human brain and our religious and spiritual selves, and with that in mind, neurotheology is not the neuroscience of religion.

It's also not a religious and spiritual perspective on science, but it is truly seeking to understand the relationship between the two.

Dr. Andrew Newberg is the Director of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

He studies both the practical and the esoteric side of religion.

Part of what neurotheology is helping us to do is to look at these very complex processes, these complex tasks like meditation, where you might be thinking about things, you might have emotions, you might be moving around, and if you're doing all these different things, how does that all happen within the brain and how does that actually change the person, change their experiences, and change the way they believe?

Moving into the more esoteric side, we can understand a little bit more of what human consciousness is.

What does it mean to be able to reflect on ourselves?

What exactly is consciousness?

Modern imaging techniques of the brain have allowed scientists to explore the relationship between religious practices and their effect on the brain.

Some of the common ones we have used include things like functional magnetic resonance imaging -- FMRI -- positron emission tomography -- PET -- or single-photon emission computed tomography -- SPECT imaging.

All of these are ways of looking at the functional changes that are going on in the human brain.

We try to scan their brain when they're not doing anything in particular, and then we scan them again when they're doing a particular practice -- a medication practice, a prayer practice.

When people are engaged in a practice like meditation or prayer, they typically activate their frontal lobe.

This is an area of our brain that helps us to concentrate -- so, obviously, if you're concentrating on God, if you're concentrating on a visual image.


Dr. Newberg has also studied the power of a religious symbol's influence on our mind.

We came up with the symbols that seem to have the greatest impact on our brain, both religious and nonreligious, and we showed them to people while they were in an MRI scanner so we could see how their brain was reacting.

What we found was that the area that seemed to be particularly affected and affected differently by religious symbols compared to nonreligious symbols was in what we call the primary visual cortex.

It's in the very back of our brain.

And that, to me, really supported the notion that they have a specific impact before it ever gets up to the higher areas of our brain where we're actually thinking about the meaning of the symbol.

Longer-term events like spiritual retreats, where participants focus on prayer, meditation, and self-reflection result in profound changes in the brain.

We found that the dopamine system was working very differently in their brain after the retreat, and what that implies to me is, is that these kinds of practices wind up priming the brain or predisposing the brain for people to have very intense spiritual experiences.

Retreats themselves, even practices like meditation or prayer, by themselves, they are not the experience.

They are the practices that ultimately facilitate or bring on these very intense spiritual states, mystical experiences, enlightenment experiences.


The research being carried out here looks at the core relationship between religious experiences and the brain.

One of the aspects of the experience is a sense of unity, a sense of oneness.

The person feels that they are deeply connected with God.

Well, when we do our brain-scan studies, we find that when people have that experience of that connection with God, there's a change in their parietal lobe, the area in the back of our brain that normally helps us to create our sense of self.

So this area, as it quiets down, we begin to lose our sense of self, the boundaries between ourself and God or the universe begin to blur, and we feel this profound sense of oneness or connectedness.

Another aspect of these experiences is a sense of intensity.

Well, there's an area of our brain called the amygdala, which turns out that that lights up whenever anything of very motivational importance happens to us.

So it's not a surprise, again, that when we have studied these practices, that this particular part of our brain, the amygdala, tends to get very active when people have these very intense experiences.

♪♪ I think the important thing is, is that we can see these transformative effects not only for the person, but we can then observe more permanent changes, and we've seen this with the retreat study.

We've seen this in other studies of people who are long-term meditators, that their brains are fundamentally different compared to those people who have not had those experiences.

But not all religious experiences are positive.

There are lots of examples, especially in today's world, where religion has gone bad, so to speak -- whether that's a terrorist flying a plane into a building, whether it's a cult, whether it's somebody who gets cancer, and they feel that God is punishing them.

What's the difference in somebody's brain when they go to the ISIS website and say, 'That looks like a good idea'? You know, what's different there and can we use that information in a practical way maybe to even redirect people away from those negative behaviors and those negative beliefs?


This neurological study of religious practices has profound implications for both the devout and the atheist.

Religious traditions, spiritual practices, to me, is one of the two main forces in all of human history.

It's that and science and technology.

Whether you are a pure scientist or pure religious or spiritual person, that pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of understanding, the drive to ask the question -- to me, that's one of the most exciting parts of this field, which is to have that openness, that passion for inquiry, and the sense of trying to discover something which is unknown.