Monday, November 4, 2013

The Psychology of Spiritual Experiences

Many people have had experiences they feel are too powerful and real to be the result of anything other than God or the supernatural. These “spiritual” experiences may be transformative, but science shows they are likely the result of our brains and nothing more.

Scientists have recently begun using brain scanning technology to see what is going on in people’s minds as they undergo “spiritual” experiences. Comparing the brain activity of meditating Buddhist monks and praying Catholic nuns, both show remarkably decreased activity in the orientation association area (OAA) of their parietal lobes.[1] This area is associated with orienting our minds with our physical bodies so that we know where our bodies end and the external world begins.[2] Thus, by shutting this area down, people lose their sense of self orientation and their perception of time and space.[3] This can account for the commonly cited experiences of feeling interconnected with the universe and of time standing still.[4] Scientists believe this effect occurs because the extreme concentration during meditation and prayer reduces the demand on areas such as the parietal lobe, thus cutting off their inputs.[5]

The God Helmet

Recall from my last post that damage to the temporal lobe sometimes causes religious hallucinations as well as hyper-religious personality changes. This has led many scientists to the conclusion that the temporal lobe plays a major role in religious experiences.[6] One scientist in particular, Stanley Koren of Laurentian University's Neuroscience Department, built an apparatus, dubbed “The God Helmet,” which uses magnetic fields to stimulate the temporal lobes.[7] According to Dr Koren, “about 20 or so people have reported feeling the presence of Christ or even seeing him in the chamber (the acoustic chamber where the experimental sessions took place). Most of these individuals were older and religious. One male, age about 35 years old (alleged atheist but early childhood Roman Catholic), saw a clear apparition of Christ staring him in the face.” Despite these experiences, “God Helmet” is a bit of a misnomer since most do not have such detailed visions.[8] However, 80% of those subjected to the apparatus do report feeling some sort of presence.[9]

Religious Visions and Voices

Most believe that only crazy people hear voices or see entities that do not belong in our physical world. However, if the individual is obviously not crazy, then people are generally inclined to believe the visions/voices must be the result of supernatural forces. What the general public does not understand is that you do not need to be schizophrenic to experience hallucinations. Here are just a few fun facts about the phenomenon:

  • People with bipolar disorder and epilepsy experience hallucinations.[10][11]
  • Hallucinations can be caused by fatigue, lack of sleep, intoxication, stress, sensory deprivation, medications, or fevers.[12][13]
  • 80% of elderly widows and widowers experience grief hallucinations of their dead partner in which they can sense their presence, see, hear, and/or hold conversations with them.[14]
  • Studies suggest that approximately 13 percent of people with no record of psychiatric problems report hearing voices at some point in their lives.[15]

Near Death Experiences

Given the success of recent books such as Proof of Heaven and Heaven is Real, it is apparent that the public is fascinated with the vivid and emotional accounts of those who’ve had near death experiences (NDEs). For many theists, they provide solid proof of an afterlife, God, and our immortal souls. However, there is nothing about NDEs that cannot be explained by the natural functioning of our brain. For example, author of Proof of Heaven, neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, claimed his experiences occurred while his cerebral cortex was completely shut down. However, professor of neurology Oliver Sacks claims it is quite conceivable he could have had his NDE as he was beginning to regain consciousness.[16] On top of that, while Dr. Alexander subjectively felt his experiences lasted several days, they could have easily occurred in less than a minute.[17]

There are those who may not be convinced with these explanations, and point to research showing that NDEs can be even more vivid than real life.[18] However, new research on rats may help to explain this phenomenon. In a study published in August 2013, rats were shown to have activity akin to consciousness in their visual cortices 30 seconds after their hearts stopped from induced cardiac arrest.[19] Rats also show this brain activity when asphyxiated with carbon monoxide, and scientists believe it may be a mechanism the brain uses to rescue itself from a sharp drop in glucose and oxygen.[20] Another explanation for NDE vividness is their effect of eliciting strong emotions. As sufferers of PTSD can attest, emotionally laden experiences tend to lead to more vivid memories.[21] Thus, multiple forces may be at work in the realism of near death experiences.

Out of Body Experiences

An out of body experience (OBE) is the sensation of floating above one’s own body. OBEs can occur during near death experiences, cardiac arrest or arrhythmias, a sudden lowering of blood pressure or blood sugar, moments of anxiety, illness, difficult childbirth, narcolepsy, sleep paralysis, or even under high G-forces.[22] To many, this separation between body and mind is clear evidence of an immaterial soul. However, scientists believe OBEs are merely a bodily illusion arising from a temporary dissociation of visual and proprioceptive representations.[23] Studies have shown that they can be induced by stimulating the brain with electricity, or by confusing the mind with virtual reality goggles.[24][25] These studies have not convinced everyone that OBEs are purely brain-based. Sam Parnia, the director of resuscitation research at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York, is one of them. He is a part of the AWARE study, which is an international multi-year project focused on cardiac patients who have NDEs.[26] One aspect of the study entails hanging pictures from the ceilings of emergency rooms to determine if those with OBEs can actually perceive them.[27] If they could, this study would provide strong evidence for an immaterial soul. So far, the results of this particular aspect of the AWARE study have not been shared, despite it having started over 10 years ago.[28] Drugs?

It’s no secret that hallucinogenic plants have been used for ages by primitive cultures to bring about experiences with the “supernatural.”[29] However, as most of us understand, drugs merely change the chemistry of our brain. Specifically, hallucinogenic drugs tend to affect areas associated with mood, consciousness, sensory perception, and awareness.[30] It’s easy to dismiss the belief these drugs tap into the spiritual world as the ignorance of primitives, or even New Age woo woo. However, in a study wherein the active ingredient of “magic mushrooms” was administered to a group of healthy adults, 94% claimed it was one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.[31] Many recipients of the drug also showed long lasting psychological growth that helped them find peace with their lives.[32] These people knew they were receiving a drug that merely changed their brain chemistry, but they still found the experience transformative.


Spiritual experiences may seem transcendent, vivid, transformative, and revealing about the realm of the supernatural. However, science shows us these experiences are merely the result of brain activity. Some may counter that science only reveals how the physical body reacts to interactions with God and/or our immaterial spirit. I’ve heard it argued that our capacity to have these experiences was placed in us by God so that we could feel his presence. The problem with this explanation is that it rests on a number of unsupported assumptions about how the universe works. In addition, the idea that the experiences are purely brain based is supported by the evidence and fits well in our understanding of the physical world. Thus, the most probable explanation is that there are no spirits involved in spirituality.


Great article on neurology of spiritual experiences

Interesting article and video on hearing voices

Good Wikipedia article about hallucinations in the sane

Good article about drug induced spiritual experiences

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