Neurotheology: Is Spiritual Experience All in Your Head?

Neurotheology: Is Spiritual Experience All in Your Head? May 20, 2024

Ever had a spiritual experience that upon reflection, you wondered if it was all in your head? Neurotheology attempts to answer this.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In a May 14, 2024 edition of NPR’s On Point, journalist Meghna Chakrabarti interviews Dr. Andrew Newberg. As Director of Research at Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and a professor at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, Newberg studies human brain activity during spiritual encounters. In the interview, Newberg discusses brainwave patterns collected from people across the religious spectrum, from Catholic nuns and Muslim mystics to Buddhist monks and Brazilian mediums. His brain scans do not reveal which spiritual occurrences are true and valid—that is beyond the scope of science. Instead, they show brain activity that is common to human beings having a spiritual experience.

 

Neurotheology

A pioneer of neurotheology, Newberg reflects on his Jewish upbringing, crediting his father for his curiosity. As a child, when he asked his father spiritual questions based on their shared tradition, his dad answered his queries with more questions. “What do you think?” his father would say. This prompted Newberg to seek answers for himself, instead of accepting whatever ideas were handed to him.

Newberg admits that his field cannot determine what is objectively real. But it can help us to understand how our brains respond to the subjective events inside our heads when we touch the divine.

Newberg says that when people engage in spiritual incidents that involve focus or concentration, the brain’s frontal lobes light up. Yet, when people have experiences that they describe as God or a spirit doing something to them—in other words, when they are the object rather than the subject of the encounter—the frontal lobes decrease in activity.

Newberg describes the occurrence of a Brazilian medium whose channeling event fired linguistic centers of her brain that didn’t fire at baseline. This causes one to wonder whether the spiritual incident allowed her to tap into a deeper linguistic reserve than she normally accesses—or whether she actually connected with a spiritual being that communicates with a different vocabulary from her own. Using brain scans, Newberg does not attempt to determine the validity of the channeling experience. He simply evaluates the cerebral event.

 

Five Characteristics of Spiritual Experience

According to Newberg, neurotheology recognizes five key things that people tend to report when they have a spiritual experience. These are:

  1. Through spiritual occurrences, people feel more in touch with the divine and with other people.
  2. After the event, people can recount details with stunning precision. Memories of spiritual events tend to be more detailed than other recollections.
  3. People relate that spiritual happenings are more powerful and vivid than everyday events.
  4. Those who have spiritual incidents often say they are overcome by a power or being greater than they are. Most people relate these as positive happenings, though some test subjects recount frightening spiritual encounters.
  5. People say they have been somehow changed by their spiritual adventures.

 

Damascus Road Experiences

Christians often refer to such occasions in their own lives as “Damascus Road experiences.” This comes from the biblical account of Saul’s conversion from staunch persecutor of the Church to apostle and evangelist. Acts 9:1-9 relates this story:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight and neither ate nor drank.

Paul underwent all five of these characteristics of spiritual encounters. This vision was so transformative that Saul changed his name to Paul. His surrender was so complete that he changed his vocation as well. It was so intense that it rendered him temporarily sightless. The apparition was so vivid that Paul recounts it numerous times in the New Testament, with great clarity of detail. And his sense of connectedness with God and others was so great that he understood his persecution of the Church as mistreatment of Jesus himself.

 

A Spiritual Experience of My Own

Let me tell you about a spiritual experience of my own. Half a lifetime ago, I was a twenty-five-year-old man trying to support a growing family with door-to-door sales. I recall several days of pounding the pavement, only to return to the office each night with empty hands. My best friend in those days was the depot manager. He and I shared a common Pentecostal/Charismatic leaning at the time. He asked if I wanted him to pray for me. Nodding my head in the affirmative, I had no idea what was about to happen when he placed a hand on my chest and began to pray.

The floor melted away beneath me. I hit the concrete like a wet rag, and didn’t even feel it. As my friend disappeared, I found myself transported and transformed. No longer was I a strapping young man. Instead, I was a baby in the arms of a heavenly Father who sat in a chair and cradled me in loving arms. I remember wordlessly reaching up and stroking the long gray beard, the same way my infant grandson cooed and stroked mine just yesterday. (I can still feel the texture of that beard, in my memory.) A dark-haired Jesus looked over the Father’s shoulder and smiled. When their gentle breath combined to stir my fair hair, I knew that breeze was the Holy Spirit. God had only three words for me that day—words I will never forget. The Father looked at me with loving eyes, and spoke in the voice of my old school bus driver (picture actress Hattie McDaniel). God’s only three words, spoken in a female voice, were, “You so funny!”

When I finally came out of my reverie, I knew three things.

  1. Regardless of my struggles, I was held in the arms of a loving God.
  2. My worries were adorable to the God who already knew what I needed, and already had the solution prepared.
  3. While I would subsequently over-analyze my own experience, God deftly defied my theological categories.

According to Newberg’s five characteristics, it seems that this event was a “valid” spiritual encounter in relation to connectedness, clarity, intensity, surrender, and transformation.

 

Was My Religious Experience All in My Head?

Sometimes I ask myself, “Was my religious experience all in my head?” I’m a consummate over-thinker and have theologically evaluated this event ad nauseam over the years. For example, does this vision really prove that God the Father is male, and sits on a throne? Does it mean that Jesus has dark hair? What does the invisible nature of the Holy Spirit mean? Did I manufacture this vision because it provided the comfort I needed at the time?

I no longer feel the need to lock God into a trinitarian box and identify the Three Persons as represented by this vision. However, I believe that The Divine took the form that I needed to see, in order to receive the lesson that I needed to learn. If I needed a gray-bearded Sky Daddy, then God was happy to oblige. But I don’t believe this experience should define my view of God for all time.

 

A Word from Dumbledore

I remember a conversation I had years ago with another dear friend, who happens to be an atheist. I recounted my many deep spiritual encounters to her, and said, “I experienced these so vividly—are you telling me they’re not real?” Patiently, my friend reminded me of a quote from J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Slain by Voldemort, Harry finds himself at a mystical version of King’s Cross Station where he has a conversation with his mentor, the great wizard Albus Dumbledore. The professor answers many of Harry’s questions during this interaction. Rowling writes:

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”…

[Dumbledore answered] “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

In his On Point Interview, Dr. Andrew Newberg would seem to agree with Dumbledore. Neurotheology can point out all he areas of the brain that light up when people have spiritual occurrences. It can show parietal activity with emotional response. It can explain how the hippocampus that deals with spatial relations can activate so it feels like a mystic is displaced in time and space. But neurotheology can’t evaluate whether a subjective encounter is an objective fact.

Ever had a spiritual experience that, upon reflection, you wondered if it was all in your head? Neurotheology agrees with Dumbledore. “Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

 

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