Brain on Religion:
visions or brain circuits at work?
By Sharon Begley, Newsweek, Copyright May 7, 2001.
In the new field of "neurotheology," scientists seek the
biological basis of spirituality. Is God all in our heads?
May 7 issue - One
Sunday morning in March, 19 years ago, as Dr. James Austin waited for a
train in London, he
glanced away from the tracks toward the river
who was spending a sabbatical year in England-saw nothing out of the
ordinary: the grimy
Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some
sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about the Zen
retreat he was headed toward. And then
suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he
had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness
from the physical world around him, evaporated
like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things "as they
really are," he recalls. The sense of "I, me, mine" disappeared.
"Time was not present," he says. "I had a
sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of
death and insinuations of selfhood vanished. I had been
graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of
IT A MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE, a spiritual
moment, even a religious
epiphany, if you like-but Austin
will not. Rather than interpret his
instant of grace as proof of a reality beyond the comprehension of
much less as proof of a deity, Austin took it as
the As a
neurologist, he accepts that all we see, hear, feel
existence of the brain." He isn't being smart-alecky.
and think is mediated or created by the brain. Austin's
moment in the Underground therefore inspired him to explore
neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical
order to feel that time, fear and
self-consciousness have dissolved,
he reasoned, brain circuits must be interrupted. Which ones? Activity in
the amygdala, which monitors the environment for threats
registers fear, must be damped. Parietal-lobe circuits,
orient you in space and mark the sharp distinction
between self and
world, must go quiet.
temporal-lobe circuits, which mark time and generate self-awareness,
must disengage. When that happens, Austin
concludes in a recent
paper, "what we think of as our
'dissolve,' or be 'deleted from consciousness'." When
'higher' functions of selfhood appear briefly to 'drop
out his theories in 1998, in the 844-page "Zen and
it was published not by some flaky New Age
outfit but by MIT Press.
May 2 - Why God Won't Go Away: Brain science and the
the Study of Science and Religion, one
program investigates how spiritual
experiences reflect "peculiarly recurrent
biology of belief" by Andrew Newberg, M.D.
Since then, more and more scientists have flocked
the study of the neurobiology of religion and spirituality. Last
year the American
Psychological Association published "Varieties
of Anomalous Experience," covering enigmas from near-death
to mystical ones. At Columbia University's new Center for
events in human brains." In December, the scholarly Journal of
Consciousness Studies devoted its issue to religious moments
ranging from "Christic visions" to "shamanic states
of consciousness." In May the book "Religion in Mind,"
tackling subjects such as how religious practices act back on
the brain's frontal lobes to inspire optimism and even creativity, reaches
stores. And in "Why God Won't Go Away,"
published in April,
Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of
Pennsylvania and his late collaborator, Eugene d'Aquili, use brain-imaging
data they collected from Tibetan
Buddhists lost in meditation and from Franciscan nuns deep in prayer to
... well, what they do involves a lot of neuro-jargon
about lobes and fissures. In a nutshell, though,
they use the data to identify what seems to be the
spirituality circuit, and to explain how it is that
religious rituals have the power to move believers and nonbelievers alike.
What all the new research shares is a passion for
uncovering the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical
experiences-for discovering, in short, what
happens in our brains when we sense that we "have encountered a
reality different from-and, in some crucial
sense, higher than-the reality of everyday experience," as
psychologist David Wulff of Wheaton College in
Massachusetts puts it.
OF TIME AND SPACE
In neurotheology, psychologists and
neurologists try to pinpoint which regions turn on, and
which turn off, during experiences that seem to exist
outside time and space. In this way it differs from the rudimentary
research of the 1950s and 1960s that found,
yeah, brain waves change when you meditate. But that research was silent
on why brain waves change, or which
specific regions in the brain lie behind the change.
of a living, working brain simply didn't exist
back then. In contrast, today's studies try to identify the brain circuits
that surge with activity when we think we
have encountered the divine, and when we feel transported by intense
prayer, an uplifting ritual or sacred music.
the field is brand new and the answers only
tentative, one thing is clear. Spiritual experiences are so consistent
across cultures, across time and across faiths,
says Wulff, that it "suggest[s] a common core that is likely a
reflection of structures and processes in the
There was a feeling of energy centered within me
... going out to infinite space and returning ... There was a relaxing of
the dualistic mind, and an intense feeling of
love. I felt a profound letting go of the boundaries around me, and a
connection with some kind of energy and state of
being that had a quality of clarity, transparency and joy.
I felt a deep and profound sense of connection to
everything, recognizing that there never was a true separation at all.
the Cover: Science & the Spirit
look at the relationship between religion and the brain
And The Brain
God all in our heads? A look at 'Neurotheology'
and the biological
basis of spirituality
Faith Is More Than A Feeling
problem with Neurotheology is that it confuses Newberg's
specialty is radiology, so he teamed with Eugene d'Aquili
to use imaging techniques to detect which regions
That is how Dr. Michael J. Baime, a colleague of Andrew
Newberg's at Penn, describes what he feels at the
moment of peak transcendence when he practices Tibetan
Buddhist meditation, as he has since he was 14 in 1969. Baime offered his
brain to Newberg, who, since childhood,
had wondered about the mystery of God's existence. At Penn,
of the brain are active during spiritual experiences. The scientists
recruited Baime and seven other Tibetan
Buddhists, all skilled meditators.
FOR THE TIMELESS AND INFINITE ran
into Baime's left arm. After a few moments, he whisked Baime off to a
SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography)
machine. By detecting the tracer, it tracks
In a typical run, Baime settled onto the floor of a
small darkened room, lit only by a few candles and filled with jasmine
incense. A string of twine lay beside him.
Concentrating on a mental image, he focused and focused, quieting his
conscious mind (he told the scientists
afterward) until something he identifies as his true inner self emerged.
It felt "timeless and infinite," Baime said
afterward, "a part of everyone and everything in
existence." When he reached the "peak" of spiritual
intensity, he tugged on the twine. Newberg, huddled outside
the room and holding the other end, felt the pull and quickly injected a
radioactive tracer into an IV line that
blood flow in the brain. Blood flow correlates with neuronal activity.
by which images, such as candles or crosses, facilitate prayer and
Linked to concentration, the frontal lobe lights up during meditation
Religious emotions: The middle temporal lobe is linked to
emotional aspects of religious experience, such as joy and awe
Sacred images: The lower temporal lobe is involved in the
to religious words: At the juncture of three
lobes, this region governs response to language Cosmic unity: When the
parietal lobes quiet down, a person
can feel at one with the universe
SPECT images are as close as scientists have"orientation association
area," processes information about
come to snapping a photo of a transcendent experience. As expected, the
prefrontal cortex, seat of attention, lit up:
Baime, after all, was focusing deeply. But it was a quieting of activity
that stood out. A bundle of neurons in
the superior parietal lobe, toward the top and back of the brain, had gone
dark. This region, nicknamed the
space and time, and the orientation of the body in space.
determines where the body ends and the rest of the world
begins. Specifically, the left orientation area creates the sensation of a
physically delimited body; the right
orientation area creates the sense of the physical space in which the body
exists. (An injury to this area can so
cripple your ability to
maneuver in physical space that you
cannot figure the distance and angles needed to navigate the route to a
chair across the room.)
The orientation area requires sensory input to do
its calculus. "If you block sensory inputs to this region, as you do
during the intense concentration of meditation,
you prevent the brain from forming the distinction between self and
not-self," says Newberg. With no information from
the senses arriving, the left orientation area cannot find any boundary
between the self and the world. As a result, the brain seems to have no
choice but "to perceive the self
as endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything,"
Newberg and d'Aquili write in "Why God Won't
Go Away." The right orientation area, equally bereft of sensory data,
defaults to a feeling of infinite space. The meditators feel that they
have touched infinity.
I felt communion, peace, openness to experience ...
[There was] an
awareness and responsiveness to God's presence around me, and a feeling of
nothingness, [as well as] moments of fullness of the presence of God. [God
was] permeating my being.
This is how her 45-minute prayer made Sister
Celeste, a Franciscan nun, feel, just before Newberg
her. During her most intensely religious
moments, when she felt a palpable sense of God's presence and an
absorption of her self into his being, her brain
displayed changes like those in the Tibetan Buddhist meditators: her
orientation area went dark. What Sister
Celeste and the other nuns in the study felt, and what the meditators
experienced, Newberg emphasizes, "were neither mistakes nor wishful
thinking. They reflect real,
biologically based events in the brain." The fact that spiritual
contemplation affects brain activity gives the
experience a reality that psychologists and neuroscientists had long
denied it, and explains why people experience
ineffable, transcendent events as equally real as seeing a
wondrous sunset or stubbing their toes.
SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE insists.
"It's no safer to say that spiritual urges and sensations
are caused by brain activity than it is to say that
the neurological changes through which we experience the
pleasure of eating an apple cause the apple to exist."
That a religious experience is reflected in brain
activity is not too surprising, actually. Everything we experience-from
the sound of thunder to the sight of a
poodle, the feeling of fear and the thought of a polka-dot castle-leaves a
trace on the brain. Neurotheology is
stalking bigger game than simply affirming that spiritual feelings leave
neural footprints, too. By pinpointing the
brain areas involved in spiritual experiences and tracing how such
experiences arise, the scientists hope to learn whether anyone can have
such experiences, and why spiritual
experiences have the qualities they do.
I could hear the singing of the planets, and wave
after wave of light washed over me. But ... I was the light as well ... I
no longer existed as a separate I' ... I saw
into the structure of the universe. I had the impression of knowing beyond
knowledge and being given glimpses into ALL.
That was how author Sophy Burnham described her
Machu Picchu, in her 1997 book "The Ecstatic Journey." Although
there was no scientist around to whisk
her into a SPECT machine and confirm that her orientation area was AWOL,
it was almost certainly quiescent. That
said, just because an experience has a neural correlate does not mean that
the experience exists "only" in the brain, or that it is a
figment of brain activity with no
independent reality. Think of what happens when you dig into an apple pie.
The brain's olfactory region registers
the aroma of the cinnamon and fruit. The somatosensory cortex processes
the feel of the flaky crust on the tongue
and lips. The visual cortex registers the sight of the pie.
Remembrances of pies past (Grandma's kitchen, the corner
bake shop ...) activate association cortices. A neuroscientist with too
much time on his hands could
undoubtedly produce a PET scan of "your brain on apple pie." But
that does not negate the reality of the pie. "The
fact that spiritual experiences can be associated with distinct neural
activity does not necessarily mean that
such experiences are mere neurological illusions," Newberg
The bottom line, he says, is that "there is no way to
determine whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual
experience mean that the brain is causing those
experiences ... or is instead perceiving a spiritual reality."
In fact, some of the same brain regions involved in
the pie experience create religious experiences, too. When the image of a
cross, or a Torah crowned in silver,
triggers a sense of religious awe, it is because the brain's
visual-association area, which interprets what the
eyes see and
connects images to emotions and memories, has learned to link those images
to that feeling. Visions that arise during prayer or ritual are also
generated in the
association area: electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes (which
nestle along the sides of the head and house
the circuits responsible for language, conceptual thinking and
associations) produces visions.
Temporal-lobe epilepsy-abnormal bursts of
electrical activity in these regions-takes this to
some studies have cast doubt on the
connection between temporal-lobe epilepsy and religiosity, others find
that the condition seems to trigger vivid, Joan
of Arc-type religious visions and voices. In his recent book "Lying
Awake," novelist Mark Salzman conjures up the story of a cloistered
nun who, after years of being unable
to truly feel the presence of God, begins having visions.
cause is temporal-lobe epilepsy. Sister John of the Cross must wrestle
with whether to have surgery, which would probably cure her-but would also
end her visions. Dostoevsky, Saint
Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Proust and others are thought to have had
leaving them obsessed with matters of the
Although temporal-lobe epilepsy is rare,
researchers suspect that focused bursts of electrical
"temporal-lobe transients" may yield
mystical experiences. To test this idea, Michael Persinger of Laurentian
University in Canada fits a helmet
jury-rigged with electromagnets onto a volunteer's head.
The helmet creates a weak magnetic field, no stronger than
that produced by a computer monitor. The field triggers bursts of
electrical activity in the temporal lobes,
Persinger finds, producing sensations that volunteers describe as
supernatural or spiritual: an out-of-body
experience, a sense of the divine. He suspects that religious experiences
are evoked by mini electrical storms
in the temporal lobes, and that
such storms can be triggered by anxiety, personal crisis, lack of oxygen,
low blood sugar and simple fatigue-suggesting a reason that
some people "find God" in such moments. Why the temporal lobes?
Persinger speculates that our left temporal lobe
maintains our sense
of self. When that region is stimulated but the right stays quiescent, the
left interprets this as a sensed presence, as the self departing the body,
most open to mystical experience tend also to be
open to new experiences generally. They are usually creative and
innovative, with a breadth of interests and a
tolerance for ambiguity (as determined by questionnaire).
also tend toward fantasy, notes David Wulff ...
I was alone upon the
seashore ... I felt that I
... return[ed] from the solitude of individuation into the
consciousness of unity with all that is ... Earth, heaven, and sea
resounded as in one vast world encircling harmony
... I felt myself one with them.
Is an experience like this one, described by the
German philosopher Malwida von Meysenburg in 1900, within the reach of
anyone? "Not everyone who meditates encounters
these sorts of unitive experiences," says Robert K.C. Forman, a
scholar of comparative religion at Hunter College
in New York City.
"This suggests that some people may be genetically or temperamentally
predisposed to mystical ability." Those most open to mystical
experience tend also
to be open to new experiences generally. They are usually creative and
innovative, with a breadth of interests and a
tolerance for ambiguity (as determined by questionnaire).
They also tend toward fantasy, notes David Wulff,
"suggesting a capacity to suspend the judging process that
distinguishes imaginings and real events." Since "we all
have the brain circuits that mediate spiritual experiences, probably most
people have the capacity for having such
Wulff. "But it's possible to foreclose
that possibility. If you are rational, controlled, not prone to fantasy,
you will probably resist the experience."
MEASURING SPIRITUAL FORCE
survey after survey since the 1960s, between 30
and 40 percent or so of those asked say they have, at least once or twice,
felt "very close to a powerful, spiritual
force that seemed to lift you out of yourself." Gallup polls in the
1990s found that 53 percent of American adults
said they had had "a moment of sudden religious awakening or
insight." Reports of mystical experience increase with education,
income and age (people in their 40s and 50s are
most likely to have them).
Yet many people seem no more able to have such an
experience than to fly to Venus. One explanation came in 1999, when
Australian researchers found that people who
report mystical and spiritual experiences tend to have unusually easy
access to subliminal consciousness. "In
people whose unconscious thoughts tend to break through into consciousness
more readily, we find some correlation with spiritual experiences,"
says psychologist Michael
Thalbourne of the University of Adelaide. Unfortunately, scientists are
pretty clueless about what allows
subconscious thoughts to pop into the consciousness of some people and not
others. The single strongest predictor of
such experiences, however, is something called "dissociation."
In this state, different regions of the
brain disengage from others.
"This theory, which explains
hypnotizability so well, might explain mystical states, too," says
Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics
Society, which debunks
paranormal phenomena. "Something really seems to be going on in the
brain, with some module
dissociating from the rest of the
Newsweek On Air: God and the Brain
THE NEURAL BASIS FOR RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
That dissociation may reflect unusual electrical
crackling in one or more brain regions. In 1997,
Vilayanur Ramachandran told the annual meeting
of the Society for Neuroscience that there is "a neural basis for
religious experience." His preliminary results
suggested that depth of religious feeling, or religiosity, might depend on
natural-not helmet-induced-enhancements in
the electrical activity of
the temporal lobes.
Interestingly, this region of the brain also seems
important for speech perception. One experience common to many spiritual
states is hearing the voice of God. It seems
to arise when you misattribute inner speech (the "little voice"
in your head that you know you generate yourself) to
outside yourself. During such experiences, the
brain's Broca's area (responsible for speech production) switches on. Most
of us can tell this is our inner voice
speaking. But when sensory information is restricted, as happens during
meditation or prayer, people are "more
likely to misattribute internally generated thoughts to an external
source," suggests psychologist Richard Bentall of the University of
Manchester in England in the book
of Anomalous Experience."
the brain's ability to find the source of a voice,
Stress and emotional arousal can also interfere
Bentall adds. In a
1998 study, researchers found that one
particular brain region, called the right anterior cingulate, turned on
when people heard something in the
environment-a voice or a sound-and also when they hallucinated hearing
something. But it stayed quiet when
they imagined hearing something and thus were sure it came from their own
brain. This region, says Bentall, "may contain the neural circuits
responsible for tagging events
as originating from the external world." When it is inappropriately
switched on, we are fooled into thinking
the voice we hear comes from outside us.
Even people who describe themselves as nonspiritual
can be moved by religious ceremonies and liturgy. Hence the power of
ritual. Drumming, dancing, incantations-all rivet
attention on a single, intense source of sensory stimulation, including
the body's own movements. They also
evoke powerful emotional responses. That combination-focused attention
that excludes other sensory stimuli, plus heightened emotion-is key.
seem to send the brain's arousal system into hyperdrive, much as intense
fear does. When this happens, explains
Newberg, one of the brain structures responsible for maintaining
equilibrium-the hippocampus-puts on the brakes.
It inhibits the flow of signals between neurons, like a
traffic cop preventing any more cars from entering the on-ramp to a
OF THE BOUNDARIES OF THE SELF'
The result is that certain regions of the brain are
deprived of neuronal input. One such deprived region seems to be the
orientation area, the same spot that goes quiet
during meditation and prayer. As in those states, without sensory input
the orientation area cannot do its job of
maintaining a sense of
where the self leaves off and the
world begins. That's why ritual and liturgy can bring on what Newberg
calls a "softening of the boundaries of the
sense of oneness and spiritual unity. Slow chanting, elegiac liturgical
melodies and whispered
ritualistic prayer all seem to work their magic in much the same way: they
turn on the hippocampus directly and block neuronal traffic to some brain
regions. The result again is
"blurring the edges of the brain's sense of self, opening the door to
the unitary states that are the primary goal of
religious ritual," says Newberg.
newfound interest in neurotheology reflects more than the availability of
cool new toys to peer inside the working brain. Psychology and
have long neglected religion. Despite its centrality to the mental lives
of so many people, religion has been met by
what David Wulff calls "indifference or even apathy" on the part
of science. When one psychologist, a practicing Christian, tried to
discuss in his introductory psych book
the role of faith in people's lives, his publisher edited out most of
it-for fear of offending readers. The rise of
neurotheology represents a radical shift in that attitude.
whatever light science is shedding on spirituality, spirituality
is returning the favor: mystical experiences, says Forman, may tell us
something about consciousness,
arguably the greatest mystery in neuroscience. "In mystical
experiences, the content of the mind fades, sensory
awareness drops out, so you are left only with pure
consciousness," says Forman. "This tells you that consciousness
does not need an object, and is not a mere byproduct of sensory
For all the tentative successes that scientists are
scoring in their search for the biological bases of
religious, spiritual and mystical experience, one mystery
will surely lie forever beyond their grasp. They may trace a sense of
transcendence to this bulge in our gray matter.
And they may trace a feeling of the divine to that one. But
it is likely that they will never resolve the greatest question of
all-namely, whether our brain wiring creates
God, or whether God created our brain wiring. Which you believe is, in the
end, a matter of faith.