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What is neurotheology?

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Neurotheology is a relatively new science that explores the relationship between the body and religious experiences. These “experiences” can include meditation, near-death experiences, trance states, the feeling of being one with the universe, or encounters with supernatural beings. There is no determination if these experiences are imaginary or real, and it’s unknown if the experience causes changes in the brain or if the brain creates the experience. The word neurotheology was first coined by Aldous Huxley in his 1962 novel Island, and has come up in various publications since. Until recently, neurotheology has struggled to receive respect from the scientific community, especially in the fields of medicine and psychology.

Research into neurotheology began much earlier than Huxley, in 1842, and for a long while centered on documenting experiences induced by hallucinogenic drugs. Occultist Aleister Crowley studied the effects of combining meditation with the use of hashish and peyote—he believed hashish was useful only to show the less-experienced meditators what they would eventually experience without the drug. Later, in the 1980s, slightly more scientific tests were performed wherein subjects were exposed to a weak magnetic field and asked to describe what they felt. Some said they sensed another presence, but, since many subjects were told beforehand what the experiment was for, the results are not considered valid.

The refinement of neuroimaging delivered a more quantitative method of research. Those who study a person’s neurological response to religious experiences use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to measure blood flow to various parts of the brain. Researchers then compare brains at rest or engaged in a neutral, non-religious activity with brains experiencing some kind of transcendence. Using fMRI, scientists have discovered that reciting Scripture (from whatever religion) correlates with distinct activity in certain sections of the brains; subjects who have a more intense religious experience show even more activity, as do those who practice such things as prayer or meditation on a regular basis. If an agnostic or atheist recites Scripture, the corresponding brain activity does not occur.

Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d’Aquili, and their co-authors wrote in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief,

“The sensation that Buddhists call ‘oneness with the universe’ and the Franciscans attribute to the palpable presence of God is not a delusion or a manifestation of wishful thinking but rather a chain of neurological events that can be objectively observed, recorded, and actually photographed. The inescapable conclusion is that God is hard-wired into the human brain.”

Neurotheology reveals that those in a deep spiritual state have less activity in the part of their brains that distinguishes between the self and the non-self. Researchers have also discovered that practicing meditation or prayer strengthens parts of the brain, and an exercise showed that a moderate amount of meditation improved the memory of people with dementia after only eight weeks.

What does it mean? The scientists have a long road of research ahead before they can say with any certainty. Could religious experiences alter the neural pathways of the brain? Certainly, if addiction can alter the brain, then continued exposure to mental stimuli can. Does the supernatural have a direct influence? Considering that there seems to be no difference between the scans performed on Christians and those performed on practitioners of other faiths, this question is more ambiguous. Certainly, God made our brains to respond to the spiritual world. How and to what degree that happens is unknown.

Neurotheology is an interesting look into how God made the human brain. Much more research needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn. Until then, we can take away this: having a habit of prayer increases memory function in those with brain disorders. Yet another reason to talk to God (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022