Bear's Blog

Human face on a dark background of gold glowing particles

The Spiritual Brain

May 18, 2024

Listen to the audio version

I embrace the field of neuroscience; in studying our nervous system, it's one step closer to people understanding that energy healing works. Tracking energy with a brain scan in real time shows what areas of the brain are activated in different states and activities. A newer field, neurotheology (also called spiritual neuroscience), studies what happens in the brain when we are having a religious or spiritual experience. Is there a consistent biological correlation in these situations?

Common aspects of what is acknowledged as a spiritual experience are: a feeling of oneness; clarity and intensity of the experience; surrender; and transformation. Often it changes the way someone thinks about life, death, or their path forward. It affects our perception of reality. Although spontaneous spiritual experiences are harder to study than purposeful religious practices, they seem to have the same defining elements.

Dr. Andrew Newberg* has been a pioneer in the field of neurotheology since the 1990’s. His studies have included:

Buddhist monks, who in intensely focused meditation have less sensory input. This leads to decreased activity in the parietal lobe, responsible for distinguishing between self and non-self in time and space - creating a feeling of infinity and being connected with all.

Catholic nuns praying using a technique called centering (a language-based, focussed practice) which show increased activity in the frontal lobe.

Islamic prayer, which requires preparation and then surrender – a total lack of concentration. In that instance frontal lobe activity decreases. Speaking in tongues, which also involves an aspect of surrender, decreases frontal lobe activity as well.

Brazilian mediums that channel spirits through writing in a trance - another state of surrender. Although the language (frontal lobe)  and motor areas of the brain are shut down, the handwriting is legible and vocabulary complex!

The hippocampus is associated with memory, learning and emotion. Along with the amygdala it’s part of the limbic system, which can "turn on" in these powerful moments of transcendence.

Spiritual experience is varied, and shows differing activity in the brain. It’s clear the whole brain can be involved, with increased or decreased activity in particular areas. In addition neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are in the mix; natural chemicals that can also be induced by ingesting psychotropic substances. There are religions that deliberately use this kind of “plant medicine” for spiritual insight.

There are neural phenomena that happen as we sense something greater than ourselves, something sacred that creates a feeling of awe and wonder. Do we create neural states to generate these experiences - such as in intentional spiritual practice - or is there an external causation? Are we truly connecting with a greater spiritual essence or reality? I believe it's both/and. Yet scientists do wonder - if the brain is responding to “something else” out there that can't be seen on brain scans, what's going on?

Those of us who regularly operate in a holistic, energetic sphere have some insight on that! It all seems to come back to an inexplicable sense of mystery that does help us understand we are a part of, and connected to - everything. Neurotheology could provide information to understand the link between spirituality and various components of mental and physical health. I am all for any scientific “proof” that starts to connect the dots!

Peace, love and healing -

Bear

*Dr. Andrew Newberg co-authored ”How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain”, a scientific and practical look at how faith and meditation can enhance brain function, as well as many other books.

Also check out - William James, who was an American philosopher and psychologist - a “thought leader” in the 1900’s. Called the "father of American psychology" he wrote many books, including “The Varieties of Spiritual Experience”. He founded the American Society for Psychical Research and was a champion of alternative approaches to healing

Subscribe to receive my newsletter with commentary and great resources about personal development, healing, and spirituality.