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.
What Andrew B. Newberg and others "discovered is that intensely focused spiritual contemplation triggers an alteration in the activity of the brain that leads one to perceive transcendent religious experiences as solid, tangible reality. In other words, the sensation that Buddhists call oneness with the universe."
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, though some researchers  have published a replication of one God Helmet experiment.
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, not while actually undergoing them; "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
- "David Biello, Searching for God in the Brain, Scientific American, 2007-10-03". Retrieved 2009-03-22.
- Aaen-Stockdale, Craig (2012). "Neuroscience for the Soul". The Psychologist. 25 (7): 520–523.
- Gajilan, A. Chris (2007-04-05). "Are humans hard-wired for faith?". Cable News Network. Retrieved 2007-04-09.
- Matthew Alper. The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God.
- James H. Austin. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness.
- James H. Austin. Zen-Brain Reflections: Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness.
- Burton, Robert A. (2008). "Neurotheology". On Being Certain. Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York City: Macmillan Publishers/St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1-4299-2611-9. ISBN 1-4299-2611-2(Macmillan Publishers edition). ISBN 0-312-35920-9. ISBN 978-0-312-35920-1(St. Martin's Press edition).
- Carr, Robert (2003). God Men Con Men. Smriti Books.
- Laurence O. McKinney (1994). Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century. American Institute for Mindfulness. ISBN 0-945724-01-2.
- Newberg, Andrew B.; D'Aquili, Eugene G.; Rause, Vince (2002). Why God Won't Go Away. Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 90. ISBN 0-345-44034-X.
- Eugen Drewermann (2006–2007). Atem des Lebens: Die moderne Neurologie und die Frage nach Gott. (Modern neurology and the question of God) Vol 1: Das Gehirn. Vol. 2: Die Seele. Düsseldorf: Patmos Verlag. Vol. 1: 864; Vol. 2: 1072. ISBN 3-491-21000-3. (Vol. 1). ISBN 3-491-21001-1(Vol. 2).
- Apfalter, Wilfried (2009). "Neurotheology: What Can We Expect from a (Future) Catholic Version?". Theology and Science. 7: 163–174. doi:10.1080/14746700902796528.
- "Neurotheology": A semantic trap set by pseudo-science for the unwary scientist, Dr Milind Ovalekar
- Persinger, M A (1983). "Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: a general hypothesis.". Perceptual and motor skills. 57 (3 Pt 2): 1255–62. doi:10.2466/pms.1983.57.3f.1255. PMID 6664802.
- Persinger, MA (2003). "The Sensed Presence Within Experimental Settings: Implications for the Male and Female Concept of Self". The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 137 (1): 5–16. doi:10.1080/00223980309600595.
- Granqvist, P; Fredrikson, M; Unge, P; Hagenfeldt, A; Valind, S; Larhammar, D; Larsson, M (2005). "Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields". Neuroscience Letters. 379 (1): 1–6. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2004.10.057. PMID 15849873. Lay summary – BioEd Online (December 9, 2004).
- Larsson, M., Larhammarb, D., Fredrikson, M., and Granqvist, P. (2005). "Reply to M.A. Persinger and S. A. Koren's response to Granqvist et al. "Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak magnetic fields"". Neuroscience Letters. 380 (3): 348–350. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2005.03.059.
- Tinoca,, Carlos A;; Ortiz,, João PL; (2014). "Magnetic Stimulation of the Temporal Cortex: A Partial "God Helmet" Replication Study". Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research. 5 (3): 234–257. Lay summary.
- Richards, P M; Persinger, M A; Koren, S A (1993). "Modification of activation and evaluation properties of narratives by weak complex magnetic field patterns that simulate limbic burst firing.". The International journal of neuroscience. 71 (1-4): 71–85. Lay summary – " subjects exposed to a computer-generated wave form, designed to simulate neuronal burst firing, generated narratives dominated by more pleasantness and less activation than a reference group.".
- Persinger, Michael; et al. (2005). "A response to Granqvist et al. "Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak magnetic ﬁelds".". Neuroscience Letters. 380 (1): 346–347. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2005.03.060. PMID 15862915.
- French, CC., Haque, U., Bunton-Stasyshyn, R., Davis, R. (2009). "The "Haunt" project: An attempt to build a "haunted" room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound". Cortex. 45 (5): 619–629. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2007.10.011. PMID 18635163.
- Gendle, MH & McGrath, MG (2012). "Can the 8-coil shakti alter subjective emotional experience? A randomized, placebo-controlled study.". Perceptual and Motor Skills. 114 (1): 217–235. doi:10.2466/02.24.pms.114.1.217-235.
- Craig Aaen-Stockdale (2012). "Neuroscience for the Soul". The Psychologist. 25 (7): 520–523.
Murphy claims his devices are able to modulate emotional states in addition to enhancing meditation and generating altered states. In flat contradiction of this claim, Gendle & McGrath (2012) found no significant difference in emotional state whether the device was on or off.
- Waxman SG, Geschwind N (1975). "The interictal behavior syndrome of temporal lobe epilepsy.". Arch Gen Psychiatry. 32 (12): 1580–6. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1975.01760300118011. PMID 1200777.
- Ramachandran, V. and Blakeslee (1998). Phantoms in the Brain.
- Harper Collins Publishers Author Interview with mario Beauregard, HarperCollins.com
- Mario Beauregard; Mario Beauregard (26 June 2006). "Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns" (PDF) (405 (2006)). Neuroscience Letters. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
- Owen AD, Hayward RD, Koenig HG, Steffens DC, Payne ME (2011). "Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life". PLoS ONE. 6 (3): e17006. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017006.
- Strassman, R (2001). DMT: The Spiritual Molecule. Inner Traditions Bear and Company. ISBN 0-89281-927-8.
- Hood, Jr., Ralph W. and Jacob A. Belzen (2005). "Research Methods in the Psychology of Religion", in Handbook Of The Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality, ed. by Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park. New York: Guilford Press. p. 64. ISBN 1-57230-922-9.
- Skatssoon, Judy (2006-07-12). "Magic mushrooms hit the God spot". ABC Science Online. Retrieved 2006-07-13.
- Griffiths, Rr; Richards, Wa; Johnson, Mw; McCann, Ud; Jesse, R (2008). "Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later.". Journal of psychopharmacology. 22 (6): 621–32. doi:10.1177/0269881108094300. PMC . PMID 18593735.
- Griffiths, R R; Richards, W A; McCann, U; Jesse, R (2006). "Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.". Psychopharmacology. 187 (3): 268–83; discussion 284–92. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5. PMID 16826400.
- 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
- Patrick McNamara, "The Neuroscience of Religious Experience". Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. ISBN 978-0-521-88958-2
- 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.
- Runehov Anne L.C., "Sacred or Neural? The Potential of Neuroscience to Explain Religious Experience". Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2007. ISBN 978-3-525-56980-1.
- Gerald Wolf, (science-in-fiction novels) Der HirnGott; Dr. Ziethen Verlag 2005, Sich Verlag 2008, ISBN 978-3-9811692-8-7. Glaube mir, mich gibt es nicht; Sich Verlag 2009, ISBN 978-3-9812628-0-3.
- The Science Of Spirituality - Is This Your Brain On God? - (NPR article)
- Horizon - God on the Brain
- Your Brain on Religion: Mystic visions or brain circuits at work? (Newsweek neurotheology article, May 2001)
- Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics neurotheology resource directory
- "This Is Your Brain on God" (Wired magazine, November 1999)
- Neurotheology: With God in Mind neurotheology article
- Survey of spiritual experiences, by the University of Pennsylvania
- Neurotheology at DMOZ
- 2006 National Film Board of Canada documentary, Mystical Brain