Neurotheology explores religion as activity of the brain

“When people begin to lose that distinction between the self and the other ... we actually see decreases of activity in the parietal lobe,” Newberg says. photo: Andre Ryoji Suguimoto
Published December 1, 2023

As Anglicans pursue theological dialogue between science and faith through initiatives like the Anglican Communion Science Commission, a growing field of neuroscience is integrating both systems of knowledge by studying how religion affects the brain.

Neurotheology seeks to explain religious beliefs and experiences through the scientific study of neural activity.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, professor and director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, has written numerous books on the subject. He says his interest in the field began in medical school while he was using neuroimaging to study the effects on the brain of conditions such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. If we’re doing brain scans of people who are depressed or have Alzheimer’s … why can’t we do brain scans of people who are meditating and praying?’ ” he says.

Another scientist studying the effects of religion on the brain is Patrick McNamara, associate professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine. In his research, McNamara has studied the role of the frontal lobes in religious experience, as well as the connection between Parkinson’s disease and religiosity.

“Religion is central to human flourishing,” McNamara says. “So understanding how [the] brain mediates religious cognition may be crucial to understanding human beings.”

In his book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, co-written with Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause, Newberg identifies two fundamental mechanisms of the brain: trying to keep us alive, which he calls self-maintenance; and learning and adapting to the world, which he calls self-transcendence.

“These are the basic functions of the brain,” Newberg told the Anglican Journal. “But they are also matching up very well with the basic functions of religion—that religion is there to help us to survive, to help us to understand our world.” Religion serves the role of self-transcendence, he says, by helping people connect to a higher power, to understand right and wrong, and to learn how to behave and interact with others. Rituals marking important events, from childbirth to marriage to death, also “help us to transcend ourselves from one point of life to the next.”

In addition, Newberg says, many religious rituals and practices such as meditation and prayer help people support themselves. Such practices “help us to cope, to find ways of managing our emotions, managing our behaviours,” he says. “In so many ways, religion is a terrific form of self-maintenance.”

Neural activity associated with religion is not limited to any single part of the brain or “God spot,” Newberg says. Rather, religious experiences engage many different parts of the brain, depending on the religion and the method of worship or prayer. For example, Newberg has studied Franciscan nuns’ centring prayer as a meditative practice, which activated areas of the brain associated with language. By comparison, he says, Buddhist monks approach prayer more as a practice of visualization.

On the other hand, he says, “If you’re Christian, if you’re meditating on the image of Jesus on the cross, you’re going to activate the visual areas of the brain, which is going to be different than if you’re repeating the Lord’s Prayer … But maybe both of them give you a feeling of love. The feeling of love might be the same and activate some of the emotional centres of the brain. But how you get there could be very different.”

Five elements of spiritual experience

Newberg’s latest book The Varieties of Spiritual Experience, co-written with David Yaden, details results from a survey of approximately 2,000 people who provided information about their spiritual experiences. While each person’s experience is personal and unique, Newberg says, he also discovered commonalities that match well to basic brain functions.

The neuroscientist identifies five core elements to these religious experiences. The first is a sense of unity or connectedness.

“It can be a mild feeling of connection saying, ‘Peace be with you’ to the people next to you in church before you leave and you just have that sense of community with them,” Newberg says. “It could be a powerful, mystical experience where you feel intimately connected to God or becoming one with God in some way.” That sense of oneness or unity, he says, is associated with the parietal lobe, which takes sensory information and uses it to create a spatial representation of oneself.

“When people begin to lose that distinction between the self and the other—it could be other members of our community, it could be humanity, it could be the world, it could be God—we actually see decreases of activity in the parietal lobe,” Newberg says.

McNamara’s research has also found an association between religious experience and a “de-centering of the self ”, as detailed in his new book The Cognitive Neuroscience of Religious Experience. “In general, the self is temporarily decentred so as to arrive at a larger sense of self via ritual and group membership,” McNamara says.

The second core element of religious experiences, Newberg says, is a unique intensity. When people describe profound spiritual experiences, “if they feel love, they don’t just feel love. They feel the most amazing sense of love they have ever felt. It was overwhelming, it was infinite … It could be a feeling of joy … It could be a sense of understanding.” Newberg links these feelings to the limbic system, which are primary emotional drivers of the brain. “They become active when anything important happens to us,” he says.

The third element, Newberg says, is a sense of clarity. “There’s the feeling of the veil being lifted off of us, that we now understand the world in a way that we never have before.” While Newberg says this likely involves many different parts of the brain, he highlights a central region called the thalamus, which brings sensory information into the brain and helps construct perceptions of reality. Studies have documented shifts in the thalamus associated with such experiences, he says.

The fourth core element is a feeling of surrender, of release or letting go. “We see this in a lot of charismatic traditions where the spirit of God just takes you over, so to speak,” Newberg says. He believes this feeling is related to the frontal lobe, which becomes active when people purposefully do things.

“Even early in stages of prayer, where you’re concentrating on the prayer, where you’re repeating the prayer, we see increases of activity in the frontal lobe,” Newberg says. “But when the experience starts to kind of take them over, then the person has a drop of activity in the frontal lobe. That seems to be associated with that sense of surrender as part of these experiences.”

The fifth core element, Newberg says, is “the transformative element of these experiences. It’s something that really changes the person, and they feel that they have something different about them as a result of having this experience … It’s almost as if the brain has been rewired, so to speak.” This transformative feeling, he says, likely involves many different parts of the brain.

There are many other potential areas of study in the neuroscience of religion, Newberg says. One is the effect of religious belief on health and vice versa. Newberg says studies from the last 30 years have found in general, people who are religious tend to have lower mortality rates, along with higher levels of optimism and feelings of purpose.

Not all research suggests religion benefits health. A 2011 Duke University study found greater atrophy in the hippocampus—a part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory and which shrinks over time when stress hormones are released—among people who reported a life-changing religious experience (as well as among born-again Protestants and Catholics and those with no religious affiliation). The authors speculated that people in the religious minority or those who struggle with their beliefs might experience higher levels of stress.

In a Scientific American article about that study, Newberg wrote of other reasons why religious people might experience more stress—if they perceive God to be punishing them or experience conflicting ideas with their religious tradition or family, for example. “Even very positive, life-changing experiences might be difficult to incorporate into the individual’s prevailing religious belief system and this can also lead to stress and anxiety,” he wrote. “Perceived religious transgressions can cause emotional and psychological anguish.”

Meanwhile, McNamara’s lab is currently researching how people with Parkinson’s disease use religion to cope with their illness, and how their religiosity may have changed after their diagnosis. “Religious and spiritual coping strategies appear to be effective for many people with Parkinson’s disease in terms of living well,” he says.

Reflecting the approach of integrating science and faith, Newberg says neurotheology offers a powerful tool that can add new perspectives to religious and philosophical questions, such as the existence of free will.

“Prior to having neuroscience, if we were going to talk about free will, we’re talking about having a philosophical or theological discussion … Did God give us free will? It becomes very dogmatic, very based on sacred texts, on great theologians like Aquinas and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle,” Newberg says.

“All of those conversations from those perspectives are still in place,” he adds. “But now we also have a brain scan study that showed that when people make a choice, that part of their brain becomes active before they knew they made a choice. What does that mean and how does that fit into the conversation about ‘Do we have free will?’ I think [neurotheology] enriches our ability to address questions about the nature of reality, about the nature of who we are as human beings.

Author

  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister (aka Matt Gardner) is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

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