All In The Mind? Psychology and Spiritual Experience

Extraordinary Encounters

In the most ordinary of circumstances, a 22 year-old woman had a most extraordinary experience. Married and living with her husband in America, she was sitting at her dressing table in her bedroom doing “something quite ordinary” when:

‘I was suddenly overwhelmed by the presence of God. I was absolutely astounded. I hadn’t known there was a God at all. Having rejected [the religion] of my childhood while still in my teens, I was pretty much an agnostic and had no interest in religion. I had no such thoughts at the time, however. I was just shattered, shaken to the roots of my being. My initial reaction was that man wasn’t supposed to know this and I must surely be going to die, and I stumbled over to the bed, got in and pulled the bedclothes up over me like a terrified child; it wasn’t an attempt to escape – which would have been ridiculous, as God was manifestly within me – it was more a gesture to hold together, absorb the shock and not actually shatter.’

Whilst she did not appear to see anything, writing of her experience that it was “not a vision; no lights, no voices”, her experience nonetheless left her with a powerful conviction of the reality of God. Reflecting 36 years later upon what she had learned from her unforgettable encounter, she asserted confidently that “God is a personal being to whom we can relate, not that I dared to address Him.” (Maxwell and Tschudin, 1990, p. 84-5).

What are we to make of experiences like this? It certainly appears that they are more common than might be supposed. The Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC), currently housed at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s, currently contains an archive of over 6000 letters and testimonies collected since its inception in 1969 and each one contains one or more descriptions of experiences that bear close – sometimes very close – resemblance to the one with which this article began. Elsewhere, journals and magazines such as De Numine, The Christian Parapsychologist, Fortean Times and Kindred Spirit frequently devote significant space in their publications to readers’ own unusual experiences of the spiritual and the sacred.

Recent years have seen a blossoming of interest in explaining such things from the perspective of psychology, and specifically from within neuroscience: perhaps because of the unusual content of such accounts, together with the fact that they so often contain descriptions of experiences that are felt rather than apprehended through the senses. Thus, as our awareness of the frequency of religious experiences has grown, so too have attempts to explain them naturalistically: that is, in purely materialistic ‘this-worldly’ terms that seek to explain their origin and characteristics in brain processes that can be isolated, examined, and measured. The rapid development of neuroscience during the last few decades has aided this process considerably, and the term ‘neurotheology’ was coined approximately twenty years ago as a label for an emerging scientific ‘sub-discipline’ that sought to prove beyond doubt that unusual religious and spiritual experiences, striking as they may seem to their often grateful recipients, are nonetheless ‘all in the mind’. This article will seek to examine some of the leading theories within this area that seek to explain religious experiences in such scientific, ‘this-worldly’ ways.

Exploring the Brain

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, neuroscientific techniques for scanning and mapping the brain had developed to the point where it was becoming possible for researchers to isolate which parts of the brain might be responsible for certain reported ‘types’ of religious experience. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili were particularly excited by the possibilities of using these to attempt to show which brain areas might be implicated in the production of mystical experience. This kind of religious experience is well-represented in the literature and is typically said to take two forms. Introvertive mysticism – following terminology first set out by W.T Stace – is a highly unusual state in which the mystic finds him- or herself suddenly at one with God; an experience that led one experient to remark that: “For a few moments I really did feel at one with the Universe or the Creative Power we recognize. I know it was a feeling of oneness with something outside myself, and also within” (Happold, 1963, p. 138). Extrovertive mysticism, by contrast, is characterised by an equally unusual state in which the experient becomes one with the landscape, as in the following extract from an account given by a man sitting in a field waiting to taking his turn at a sports game:

‘Suddenly, and without warning, something invisible seemed to be drawn across the sky, transforming the world about me into a kind of tent of concentrated and enhanced significance. What had been merely an outside became an inside. The objective was somehow transformed into a completely subjective fact, which was experienced as ‘mine’, but on a level where the word had no meaning; for ‘I’ was no longer the familiar ego’ (Happold, 1963, p. 130)

What, wondered Newberg and D’Aquili, is happening in the brains of persons undergoing such events? The fact that mystical experiences tend to occur spontaneously causes obvious problems for any attempt to examine them experimentally but Newberg and D’Aquili were aware that sometimes such experiences can actually be induced by specific forms of meditation, and so they advertised for volunteers who were able to induce mystical states in this way. Having found a small sample, they proceeded to set up an experiment. When entering the state of oneness, the volunteers were instructed pull on a string, an action which provided a signal to the researchers to inject a radioactive tracer which would enable them to ‘map’ via a SPECT scan which parts of the meditators’ brains were behaving unusually at that point: if, indeed, any were. In fact two were, and one of these – the Superior Parietal Lobe – was of particular interest to the researchers, given that this is the part of the brain that continually differentiates between self and world. Newberg and D’Aquili noted that during specific episodes where the meditators reported their experiences of oneness, there was decreased activity in this part of the brain, together with enhanced activity in other brain areas usually associated with the ‘tagging’ of experiences as deeply meaningful, and specifically located within the limbic system. It was as if the act of meditation was enabling the volunteers to ‘switch off’ the very part of the brain that typically tells us where our boundaries are, whilst simultaneously they were being ‘flooded’ with sensations of deep meaningfulness. Given, as we have seen, that mystical experiences are frequently characterised by this very obliteration of boundaries accompanied by feelings of a deeply spiritual nature, Newberg and D’Aquili considered their findings to be of significance as regards the isolation and location of the neurological ‘triggers’ and roots of a specific kind of religious experience.  It would not be long before other researchers appeared to be drawing equally exciting brain-based conclusions with regard to other ‘types’ of religious experience.

The Odyssey of Michael Persinger

As the opening years of the twenty-first century unfolded, Laurentian University researcher Michael Persinger emerged as one of the world’s leading neurotheologians. Basing his findings on extensive research, Persinger claimed that small microseizures in the brain’s temporal lobes were the explanation for a wide range of unusual experiences, including religious experiences. Dubbing these seizures ‘Temporal Lobe Transients’ (TLTs), Persinger suggested that they were common in the majority of the population, were not accompanied by actual fits, and could give rise to a range of reported phenomena which he divided into ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ forms, or signs. Soft signs, he claimed, included the experience of vivid landscapes, unusual lights, déjà vu and senses of an invisible presence, whilst hard signs included a sense of being ‘chosen’ by God, extremely altered states of consciousness, and a temporary but extremely vivid sense of great personal importance. But what might cause TLTs? Persinger suggested a range of things, including episodes of personal crisis and temporary modifications of normal brain function caused by temporary changes to oxygen levels.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, Persinger claimed to have developed a piece of apparatus – dubbed a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator – which could actually generate and hence create such experiences, and in his laboratory at Laurentian university he proceeded to create them seemingly at will, firstly by producing an atmosphere of elevated ‘spirituality’ via the use of things such as religious icons and wind chimes and then by firing small bursts of weak electromagnetic fields directly at his experimental subjects’ temporal lobes. Extracts of volunteers’ descriptions of their ensuing experiences do indeed appear to include episodes in which they sensed a presence, experienced unusual feelings, and felt themselves temporarily ‘detached’ from their normal locations within their bodies. Some volunteers also reported the sudden ‘return’ of forgotten things, including episodes from childhood.

Evaluating Neurotheology

Whilst the bold undertakings of Newberg, D’Aquili and Persinger in no way represent the totality of neurotheology’s contribution to the understanding and investigation of religious experience, they do represent some of the best examples of the work that has emerged from this exciting and relatively new sub-discipline. There have, however, been those who have been critical of both the actual research done and the assumptions upon which it is based. Critics have, for example, pointed to the very small sample sizes used by Newberg and D’Aquili and the rather crude elements of some of their research methods, such as the pulling on a string by the volunteers as a means of signalling the onset of their experiences.

Persinger, in particular, has received significant criticism. Specifically, it is alleged that whilst he has produced some unusual experiences during the course of his research, these are not the same as ‘genuine’ religious experiences, and an examination of some of his volunteers’ reports appears to indicate that many grotesque and bizarre experiences were reported including the temporary displacement of limbs and the ‘feeling’ of internal organs by unseen hands. In addition, commercially-available versions of his Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator have been obtainable for a number of years but have failed to produce the kinds of experiences that Persinger has claimed for it. Finally, critic Craig Aaen-Stockdale has drawn attention to the exceptionally weak field strength produced by this device, describing it as about 5000 times weaker than a fridge magnet and concluding that “[T]here is simply no way that his apparatus is having any meaningful effect on the brain (Fox, 2014, p.158). Some of Persinger’s critics suggest that he has simply created a very spiritually suggestive atmosphere in his laboratory, and that his subjects are simply reporting experiences that arise from their heightened sense of expectation, rather than events that are being generated within the temporal lobe.

Exploring Assumptions

One major assumption that underlies all of the efforts of neurotheology is that mental states are either the same as brain states or are produced by them. Thus, in assuming at the outset that mind can be ontologically reduced to brain, the researchers appear to be seeking to produce (and hence discover) unusual alterations in mental functioning either by manipulating the brain or by studying those who can apparently – albeit temporarily – modify its functioning at will. Problematic here is the very real possibility that whilst changes in mental state might correlate with changes in brain state, they might not actually be caused by them, and that the actual causal root may lie elsewhere. More problematic still are the challenges to mind-brain identity theories that have emerged – and continue to emerge – from within academic sub-disciplines such as the philosophy of mind. It is still far from certain that brain states simply are mental states, or that the latter can be unproblematically reduced to the former. This being said, we are currently living in the midst of something approaching a revolution in our understanding of the brain and its function, in no small part due to the development of new technologies that are permitting ever greater understandings of mind, brain, and the relationship between the two. It is to be hoped that one of the benefits arising from such a revolution might be a greater understanding of the roots of religious experience in the brain and its processes: if it should turn out to be the case that such roots can be really found there.


D’Aquili, E. and A. Newberg. (1999). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Fox, M. (2014). The Fifth Love: Exploring Accounts of the Extraordinary. Kidderminster: Spirit and Sage.

Happold, F. (1963). Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Joseph, R. (2003). Neurotheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience. California: University Press.

Maxwell, M and V. Tschudin (1990) Seeing the Invisible. London: Arkana.

This article first appeared in Challenging Religious Issues, Issue 6, Spring 2015, pp. 9-14.