Neural Correlates of Religious Experience

An Exploration of the Reason, Methods and Research of the Neural Correlates of Religious Experience

Jennifer Romano

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Spiritual and Religious experiences often remain and power and mysterious aspect of humanity. The aim of this paper is to address the reasons, methods and literature around the neural correlates of these events. Studying the underlying mechanisms behind these phenomenons can be controversial as it raises philosophical dilemmas. However, this research is important to further the understanding of the human condition. Recent imaging studies indicate several brain regions (frontal lobes and limbic system) associated with religious experience. Through a streamlining of these methodologies, it is anticipated that these studies will provide implications for integrating spirituality into psychotherapy.

An Exploration of the Reason, Methods and Research of the Neural Correlates of Religious Experience

There is a voyager condition known as “Jerusalem Syndrome,” whereby tourists to Jerusalem begin to develop a psychosomatic illness in which they experience deeply religious delusions, such as believing they are God or other characters from the Bible (Kalian & Witztum, 2002). Some psychiatrists hypothesize that this disorder may develop as a result of an incongruence between their expectations of the holy city and the reality that it is, in fact, a modern city. Others speculate that many of these travelers are pilgrims, and upon arriving in Jerusalem, they feel closer to God, and it is this intense feeling of propinquity that leads to this strange psychological reaction.

Other voyager syndromes exist as well. Stendhal syndrome and Paris Syndrome have also been reported, but are believed to be an intense psychological reaction to the quantity and quality of art in both Florence and Paris, respectively (Smith, 2010). All experiences, whether religious or not, are brain based and therefore provide both a psychological and physiological response. That is why standing before the Temple Mount or standing before a sculpture by Michelangelo can both send shivers down your spine or move you to tears. Spiritual or religious experiences like the ones mentioned above continue to be a mysterious phenomenon that warrants further study.

Why Study Neural Correlates of Religious Experiences?

Spirituality is an aspect of humanity that the field of psychology is just beginning to tap into. Surveys indicate that over 90% of United States believes in a god and 58% categorized religion as important to them (Shafranske, 1996). For this reason and several others, Pargament (2007) argues, spirituality cannot be separated from psychotherapy and in many cases can be both part of the problem and the solution for those that the field serves. Through understanding the neural mechanisms behind religious belief and behaviors, psychologists could potentially unlock new resources in practicing spiritually integrated psychotherapy.

A study of the neurological correlates of religious or spiritual experiences inevitably runs into the discourse of mind and body dualism. During the 17th century, Descartes proposed his revolutionary idea that the mind and body were separate entities. He hypothesized that the mind was the ethereal component to our thoughts while the brain was the material, but neither entity can function alone. Much the same, Aristotle theorized centuries earlier that thoughts and feelings actually came from the heart rather than the brain. Eastern philosophy has held the notion for centuries suggesting that the mind/body connection is integrated and holistic. This notion was threatened with the advent of modern western medicine.

Science provided a mechanistic model of health. Alan Turing, one of the forerunners of the cognitive revolution, suggested that humans operated on the same production rules as computers in his computational-representational paradigm (Boden, 2006). This has lead to the exclusion of the spiritual and religion in the study of modern psychology. In fact, the field of psychology has not always embraced religion. Freud used psychological theory to discount religion as a whole, suggesting that people invented god as a form of wish fulfillment that had its roots in unresolved childhood conflict (Freud, 1950). Much the same, B.F. Skinner rejected the notion of God, dissolving religion down to a form of behavioral control (Skinner, 1971). These two forefathers ushered in the advent of modern science in studying the human psyche. With this societal change came the prediction of religion dissolution, and yet, it still remains. Recently, psychologists have begun to advocate for a pragmatic approach to studying humanity’s spiritual and religious correlates.

The modern approach appears to be that the mind is in fact the less tangible functions of the brain; however both the material and phenomenological are relevant to study in religious and spiritual experiences. William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience highlighted the danger of a reductionist explanation of religious experiences. He writes “ideals appear as inert by-products of physiology; what is higher is explained by what is lower and treated forever as a case of ‘nothing but’- nothing but something else of an inferior sort.” (James, 1981, p.8) It is important to consider neuropsychological research through this lens. However, understanding the underlying mechanisms does not necessarily take away the meaning that people find in their experiences. Does knowing that the neurotransmitters involved in the feelings of love make the experience of a mother’s love personally less meaningful? Who is to say that God did not construct us with the capacity to engage in these experiences? Jones (2010) argued that further study into the neuroscience of religious experience can only extend the understanding of the human condition. It is with this frame of reference that practitioners should interpret the knowledge gained through this research.

Methods of Neural Correlate Studies

As with all scientific research, an operational definition of religious experience is needed before any effective examination can be done. This is a current issue within this line of study as religious behaviors, beliefs and experiences are complex phenomenon. Studying any experiential component relies on subjective measures as having experience is not easily observable to an outside investigator. Religious and spiritual experiences are defined on an individual level. McNarama (2002) suggested that religious experiences involve intense cognitive and emotional reactions to humanity’s “ultimate concerns.” These may include behaviors such as prayer, meditation, and chanting. Most subjective measures that are used often include cognitive, emotional, and psychological parameters (Newberg, 2014).

It is not enough to just acknowledge the existence of the experience, rather in order to understand the construct more thoroughly, objective measures are required. Physiological parameters such as blood pressure, heart rate, and hormonal changes have been used to look at the basic biological reactions to these experiences. Nevertheless, these only provide a foundational understanding of the effects of spiritual experience in the human brain. Studies show that changes in the autonomic nervous system are multifarious, in that a relaxation response may also have arousal components (Hugdhal, 1996). In order to understand these complexities, researchers must look in the brain.

The current instruments to do this include imaging devices. Electroencephalography (EEG) measures electrical activity in the brain, but only allows for broad implications in the areas of activation. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows for more localized assessment through measuring cerebral blood flow, however the machinery is limiting in measuring practices that can not be completed laying down. Positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) allow for more specificity in measuring neurotransmitter systems in brain activation. It is important to note that all of these measures, while helpful can only provide correlations and should not be implied to measure causal effects.

Literature Review

From what has been observed, religious experiences are common across age, time and culture (Wach, 1951). Many understand religious experience to be like any other experience. Just as someone may feel joy, love, fear, or awe in regards to any ordinary object, in a religious experience all these same feelings are there, they are just superimposed towards a religious object. Previously it was proposed that the same limbic and subcortical networks that supported non-religious feelings were activated in experiencing religious feelings as well (Saver & Ravin, 1997). This led to a substantial inference that religious experiences are generated as a difference in perception, rather than a difference in sensation. Essentially, Saver and Ravin supposed that individuals interpret a religious stimulus in unique ways according to the cognitive expectations that they carry.

In 2001, researchers conducted a study to see if religious experience was in fact due to attribution as Saver and Rabin suggested or if these experiences were pre-conceptual. To test this, they observed brain activation via positron emission tomography (PET) scan in religious/non-religious subjects as they recited a psalm. They hypothesized that if the religious experience was an attributional phenomenon, there would be activation in the frontal parietal lobe, an area known for reasoning. However if pre-conceptual, they expected to see activation in the limbic system, which is in charge of emotions. Interestingly enough, they found that a religious state involved areas of cognitive processes, supporting the attribution phenomenon (Azari et. al, 2001). They also concluded that religious experience did not elicit the same emotional experience or arousal as compared to non-religious subjects in a happy state, furthering the evidence for the theory of attribution.

While the results from this study have led to the understanding of the difference between mental states in religious and non-religious subjects, it does not isolate the variable of belief itself. This becomes especially important when religious experience is understood as logical cognitive process. It begs the question, where do these cognitions originate? In a study completed in 2009, researchers found that religious thinking is more associated with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region that governs emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, whereas ordinary facts were more reliant on memory retrieval networks (Harris et. al, 2009). So while this still supports the theory that religious experience and thought come from a logical part of our brains, it adds another layer, claiming that we still deal with religion in an emotional way.

Beauregaurd and Paquette (2008) used fMRI scans to observe brain activation in Carmelite nuns when asked to re-experience their most intense spiritual connection. Results indicated that there was significant overlap in activation of those nuns asked to re-experience an intense spiritual interaction and those asked to relive an intense human interaction. However, there was greater activation in the prefrontal cortex, medial temporal cortex, and insular cortex for those participants in the spiritual group. The most interesting of these activations was in the insular cortex as this part of the brain is implied in interpreting visceral stimuli. This infers that those with a spiritual experience “felt” their connection deep down within in their bodies. McNarma hypothesized that the activation in the frontal lobes may have implications for the intrinsically rewarding properties of spiritual experiences (McNamara, 2002). This supposition may explain why spiritual or religious experiences may feel so good.


Overall, imaging studies seem to indicate the frontal lobes and limbic system are involved in various religious and spiritual experiences (Newberg, 2014). It is important to note that with the methodological discrepancies in the field there is still a great amount of within group variance that should continue to be explored. Spiritual experiences such as prayer, mediation, or even pilgrimage such as in Jerusalem Syndrome are naturalistically powerful events. Through studying the mechanisms that lie beneath these events, psychologists may be able to identify the healing components and in turn inspire the development of the human psyche.


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