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Neurotheology, also known as spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms. It is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. This contrasts with the Psychology of religion which studies psychological, rather than neural, states.
Proponents of neurotheology say there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious. The field has formed the basis of several popular science books, but has received criticism from psychologists.
"Neurotheology" is a neologism that describes the scientific study of the neural correlates of religious or spiritual beliefs, experiences and practices. Other researchers prefer to use terms like "spiritual neuroscience" or "neuroscience of religion". Researchers in the field attempt to explain the neurological basis for religious experiences, such as:
- The perception that time, fear or self-consciousness have dissolved
- Spiritual awe
- Oneness with the universe
- Ecstatic trance
- Sudden enlightenment
- Altered states of consciousness
Aldous Huxley used the term neurotheology for the first time in the utopian novel Island. The discipline studies the cognitive neuroscience of religious experience and spirituality. The term is also sometimes used in a less scientific context or a philosophical context. Some of these uses, according to the mainstream scientific community, qualify as pseudoscience. Huxley used it mainly in a philosophical context.
The use of the term neurotheology in published scientific work is currently uncommon. A search on the citation indexing service provided by Institute for Scientific Information returns five articles. Three of these are published in the journal Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, while two are published in American Behavioral Scientist. Work on the neural basis of spirituality has, however, occurred sporadically throughout the 20th century.
In an attempt to focus and clarify what was a growing interest in this field, in 1994 educator and businessman Laurence O. McKinney published the first book on the subject, titled "Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century", written for a popular audience but also promoted in the theological journal Zygon. According to McKinney, neurotheology sources the basis of religious inquiry in relatively recent developmental neurophysiology. According to McKinney's theory, pre-frontal development, in humans, creates an illusion of chronological time as a fundamental part of normal adult cognition past the age of three. The inability of the adult brain to retrieve earlier images experienced by an infantile brain creates questions such as "where did I come from" and "where does it all go", which McKinney suggests led to the creation of various religious explanations. The experience of death as a peaceful regression into timelessness as the brain dies won praise from readers as varied as author Arthur C. Clarke, eminent theologian Harvey Cox, and the Dalai Lama and sparked a new interest in the field.
Andrew B. Newberg and others describe neurological processes which are driven by the repetitive, rhythmic stimulation which is typical of human ritual, and which contribute to the delivery of transcendental feelings of connection to a universal unity. They posit, however, that physical stimulation alone is not sufficient to generate transcendental unitive experiences. For this to occur they say there must be a blending of the rhythmic stimulation with ideas. Once this occurs "…ritual turns a meaningful idea into a visceral experience." Moreover, they say that humans are compelled to act out myths by the biological operations of the brain on account of what they call the "inbuilt tendency of the brain to turn thoughts into actions".
The radical Catholic theologian Eugen Drewermann developed a two-volume critique of traditional conceptions of God and the soul and a reinterpretation of religion (Modern Neurology and the Question of God) based on current neuroscientific research.
However, it has also been argued "that neurotheology should be conceived and practiced within a theological framework." Furthermore, it has been suggested that creating a separate category for this kind of research is moot since conventional Behavioural and Social Neurosciences disciplines can handle any empirical investigation of this nature.
Magnetic stimulation studies
During the 1980s Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of human subjects with a weak magnetic field using an apparatus that popularly became known as the "God helmet" and reported that many of his subjects claimed to experience a "sensed presence" during stimulation. This work has been criticised and has, to date, not been replicated by other researchers.
Granqvist et al. claimed that Persinger's work was not "double-blind." Participants were often graduate students who knew what sort of results to expect, and there was the risk that the experimenters' expectations would be transmitted to subjects by unconscious cues. The participants were frequently given an idea of the purpose of the study by being asked to fill in questionnaires designed to test their suggestibility to paranormal experiences before the trials were conducted. Granqvist et al. failed to replicate Persinger's experiments double-blinded, and concluded that the presence or absence of the magnetic field had no relationship with any religious or spiritual experience reported by the participants, but was predicted entirely by their suggestibility and personality traits. Following the publication of this study, Persinger et al. dispute this. One published attempt to create a "haunted room" using environmental "complex" electromagnetic fields based on Persinger's theoretical and experimental work did not produce the sensation of a "sensed presence" and found that reports of unusual experiences were uncorrelated with the presence or absence of these fields. As in the study by Granqvist et al., reports of unusual experiences were instead predicted by the personality characteristics and suggestibility of participants. One experiment with a commercial version of the God helmet found no difference in response to graphic images whether the device was on or off.
Neuropsychology and neuroimaging
The first researcher to note and catalog the abnormal experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) was neurologist Norman Geschwind, who noted a set of religious behavioral traits associated with TLE seizures. These include hypergraphia, hyperreligiosity, reduced sexual interest, fainting spells, and pedantism, often collectively ascribed to a condition known as Geschwind syndrome.
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explored the neural basis of the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE using the galvanic skin response (GSR), which correlates with emotional arousal, to determine whether the hyperreligiosity seen in TLE was due to an overall heightened emotional state or was specific to religious stimuli. Ramachandran presented two subjects with neutral, sexually arousing and religious words while measuring GSR. Ramachandran was able to show that patients with TLE showed enhanced emotional responses to the religious words, diminished responses to the sexually charged words, and normal responses to the neutral words. This study was presented as an abstract at a neuroscience conference and referenced in Ramachandran's book, Phantoms in the Brain, but it has never been published in the peer-reviewed scientific press.
Research by Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, using fMRI imaging of Carmelite nuns, has purported to show that religious and spiritual experiences include several brain regions and not a single 'God spot'. As Beauregard has said, "There is no God spot in the brain. Spiritual experiences are complex, like intense experiences with other human beings." The neuroimaging was conducted when the nuns were asked to recall past mystical states and not while actually experiencing mystical states; "subjects were asked to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of the Carmelite Order."  A 2011 study by researchers at the Duke University Medical Center found hippocampal atrophy is associated with older adults who report life-changing religious experiences, as well as those who are "born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation".
Some scientists working in the field hypothesize that the basis of spiritual experience arises in neurological physiology. Speculative suggestions have been made that an increase of N,N-dimethyltryptamine levels in the pineal gland contribute to spiritual experiences. Scientific studies confirming this have yet to be published. It has also been suggested that stimulation of the temporal lobe by psychoactive ingredients of 'Magic Mushrooms' mimics religious experiences. This hypothesis has found laboratory validation with respect to psilocybin.
- Biological psychology
- Bicameralism (psychology)
- Cognitive science of religion
- Daniel Dennett
- Eight-circuit model of consciousness
- Eugen Drewermann
- Evolutionary origin of religions
- Geschwind syndrome
- God gene
- God helmet
- God in a Pill?
- Julian Jaynes
- Music Therapy
- Oceanic feeling
- Out-of-body experience
- Philosophy of mind
- Philosophy of science
- Psychedelic crisis
- Psychology of religion
- Religious ecstasy
- Religious experience
- Temporal lobe epilepsy
- Theological anthropology
- Third Man factor
- Transpersonal psychology
- Viruses of the Mind
- Zen and the Brain
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- The Science Of Spirituality - Is This Your Brain On God? - (NPR article)
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- 2006 National Film Board of Canada documentary, Mystical Brain