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Neurotheology, also known as spiritual neuroscience, is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. Proponents of neurotheology claim that there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious.


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. Keywords for such work include 'deity', 'neurophysiological bases', 'spirituality' and 'mysticism'.

In an attempt to focus and clarify what was a growing interest in this field, in 1994 educator 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.

Dr 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".

Based on current neuroscientific research, Eugen Drewermann, one of today's most prominent and controversial theologians in Europe, developed in two monumental volumes (Modern Neurology and the Question of God), published in 2006 and 2007, a radical critique of traditional conceptions of God and the soul and a sweeping reinterpretation of religion in light of neurology.

However, it has also been argued "that neurotheology should be conceived and practiced within a theological framework."

Defining and measuring spirituality

Neurotheology hypothesizes that the basis of spiritual experiences arises in neurological physiology, for example an increase of N, N-Dimethyltryptamine levels in the pineal gland, and attempts to explain these neurological basis for those experiences, such as:

These experiences are seen as the basis for many religious beliefs and behaviors.


Early studies in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to use EEG to study brain wave patterns correlated with "spiritual" states. During the 1980s Dr. Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of human subjects with a weak magnetic field. His subjects claimed to have a sensation of "an ethereal presence in the room" (Richard Dawkins did not have a sensation of "an ethereal presence" in any way, but was uncertain as to whether this would remain the case in a less clinical situation). This work gained publicity at the time, although it was unresolved as to the mechanism that may have elicited this response.

Some current studies use neuroimaging to localize brain regions active, or differentially active, during experiences that subjects associate with "spiritual" feelings or images. David Wulf, a psychologist at Wheaton Collegemarker, Massachusetts, suggests that current brain imaging studies, along with the consistency of spiritual experiences across cultures, history, and religions, "suggest a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain", echoing McKinney's primary thesis that feelings associated with religious experience are normal aspects of brain function under extreme circumstances rather than communication from God.


An attempt to marry a materialistic approach like neuroscience to spirituality attracts much criticism. Some of the criticism is philosophical, dealing with the (perceived) irreconcilability between science and spirituality, while some is more methodological, dealing with the issues of studying an experience as subjective as spirituality.

Philosophical criticism

Critics of this approach, like philosopher Ken Wilber and religious scholar Huston Smith, see the more materialistic formulations of the approach as examples of reductionism and scientism that are only looking at the empirical aspects of the phenomena, and not including the possible validity of spiritual experience with all of its subjectivity.

Scientific criticism

In 2005, Pehr Granqvist, a psychologist at Uppsala Universitymarker in Swedenmarker, questioned Dr. Michael Persinger's findings in a paper published in Neuroscience Letters. Granqvist claimed that Persinger's work was not "double blind," in that those conducting Persinger's trials, who were often graduate students, knew what sort of results to expect, with the risk that the knowledge would be transmitted to experimental subjects by unconscious cues. The experimenters also were frequently given an idea of what was happening, according to Granqvist, by being asked to fill in questionnaires designed to test their suggestibility to paranormal experiences before the trials were conducted. Granqvist set about conducting similar experiments double blinded, and published findings implying that the presence or absence of the magnetic field had no relationship with any religious or spiritual experience reported by the participants.

Persinger stood by his findings, arguing that several of his previous experiments have explicitly used double-blind protocols, and that Granqvist failed to fully replicate Persinger's experimental conditions by, for example, miscalibrating the software, and using a magnetic field exposure time too brief to induce the hypothesized effect.

See also



  1. Apfalter, Wilfried, "Neurotheology: What Can We Expect from a (Future) Catholic Version?" Theology and Science, 7 (2009). pp. 163-174
  2. Video footage, see 3:04-7 and 3:32-43
  3. Granqvist, Pehr, et al., "Sensed Presence and Mystical Experiences are Predicted by Suggestibility, Not by the Application of Transcranial Weak Complex Magnetic Fields." Neuroscience Letters, 379 (2005). pp. 1-6

Further reading

  • Laurence O. McKinney, Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century, (1994) American Institute for Mindfulness. ISBN 0-945724-01-2.
  • Andrew Neher, The Psychology of Transcendence, Dover, 2nd ed 1990, ISBN 0-486-26167-0
  • Andrew B. Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, (1999), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, ISBN 0-8006-3163-3
  • Persinger, M., Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artefacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 57.
  • Thomas B. Roberts, "Chemical Input — Religious Output: Entheogens" Chapter 10 in Where God and Science Meet: Vol. 3. The Psychology of Religious Experience edited by Robert McNamara. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
  • Gerald Wolf, Der HirnGott (a science-in-fiction novel); Dr. Ziethen Verlag 2005, Sich Verlag 2008; ISBN 978-3-9811692-8-7

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