How the brain controls spiritual and religious experiences
Spiritual and religious experiences are unique and personal, and they are also complex and multi-layered. They can involve feelings of awe, wonder, peace, and connection with something greater than oneself.
They can also involve a sense of the divine, a transcendence of the self, and a deep understanding of the meaning of life.
Despite the complexity of these experiences, they are often shaped by the brain, and the way in which the brain processes sensory information, emotions, and thoughts can impact one’s spiritual and religious experiences.
How the Brain Processes Spiritual/Religious Experiences
The brain processes spiritual and religious experiences in different ways, depending on the individual’s cultural background, personal beliefs, and spiritual practices. However, some areas of the brain are consistently activated during spiritual and religious experiences, including the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, and the default mode network.
The amygdala is responsible for processing emotional information and generating a response to emotionally charged stimuli. During spiritual and religious experiences, the amygdala is often activated, and this can result in feelings of fear, awe, or reverence. This activation is thought to be related to the individual’s perception of something greater than themselves, and to the sense of the divine.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex
The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in regulating emotions, attention, and decision-making. During spiritual and religious experiences, this area of the brain is often activated, and it can help regulate emotions and control the individual’s response to their experience. This activation is thought to be related to the individual’s awareness of their spiritual/religious experiences and their ability to understand the significance of these experiences.
The insula is involved in processing sensory information and generating a subjective experience of the body and the environment. During spiritual and religious experiences, this area of the brain is often activated, and it can result in feelings of peace, calm, and connection with something greater than oneself. This activation is thought to be related to the individual’s perception of the spiritual/religious dimension of the world and their connection with a higher power.
The Default Mode Network
The default mode network is a network of brain regions that is active when the individual is not focused on the outside world, but instead is focused on internal thoughts and experiences. During spiritual and religious experiences, this network is often deactivated, and this can result in a sense of transcendence and a disconnection from the self. This deactivation is thought to be related to the individual’s focus on the spiritual/religious aspect of the world, rather than their focus on themselves.
Spiritual and religious experiences are complex and multi-layered, and they are shaped by the brain in different ways. While the specific neural processes involved in spiritual and religious experiences may vary from person to person, certain areas of the brain, including the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, and the default mode network, are consistently activated during these experiences. Understanding the way in which the brain processes spiritual and religious experiences can provide insight into these unique and personal experiences, and it can help individuals to better understand and appreciate their own spiritual/religious experiences.
Science of Spirituality. (2021, November 8). Brain and Spirituality. Retrieved from https://scienceofspirituality.org/brain-and-spirituality/
Newberg, A. (2010). How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough. Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. Ballantine Books.
Azari, N. P., Nielson