What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences?

240px-Mindfulness-present-moment-here-now-awareness-symbol-logoNeuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg on brain changes associated with spiritual experiences:

When practitioners surrender their will, activity decreases in their frontal lobes, suggesting that speech is being generated from some place other than the normal speech centers.

Newberg is a pioneer in the field of neurotheology, the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences. In the 1990s, he began his work in the field by scanning what happens in people’s brains when they meditate, because it is a spiritual practice that is relatively easy to monitor.

Since then, he’s looked at around 150 brain scans, including those of Buddhists, nuns, atheists, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and Brazilian mediums practicing psychography—the channeling of messages from the dead through handwriting.

As to what’s going on in their brains, Newberg says, “It depends to some degree on what the practice is.” Practices that involve concentrating on something over and over again, either through prayer or a mantra-based meditation, tend to activate the frontal lobes, the areas chiefly responsible for directing attention, modulating behavior, and expressing language.

In contrast, when practitioners surrender their will, such as when they speak in tongues or function as a medium, activity decreases in their frontal lobes and increases in their thalamus, the tiny brain structure that regulates the flow of incoming sensory information to many parts of the brain. This suggests that their speech is being generated from some place other than the normal speech centers.

Believers could say this proves that another entity is speaking through the practitioner, while nonbelievers would look for a neurological explanation. Newberg takes into account both perspectives. When he defines neurotheology in his book, Principles of Neurotheology, he writes, “An ardent atheist, who refuses to accept any aspect of religion as possibly correct or useful, or a devout religious person, who refuses to accept science as providing any value regarding knowledge of the world, would most likely not be considered a neurotheologian.”

via What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences? – Lynne Blumberg – The Atlantic.

14 Comments on "What Happens to the Brain During Spiritual Experiences?"

  1. Thad McKraken | Jun 6, 2014 at 1:09 pm |


    I was just thinking about this last night, namely, that a lot of Occultists have questioned my use of marijuana and it’s like, it’s sex magick. Weed intensifies the sexual experience in most people. Also, have you ever watched those brain scan videos of women having orgasms? Fascinating. So it’d be pretty easy to study how pot orgasms create a very distinct meditative state in the brain. Hook me up to some electrodes please Mr. Scientist. Again, I was just thinking about this last night because some idiot was calling me a pothead.

    “mystical experiences are described as blissful or ecstatic because they share many of the same neural pathways in the parietal and frontal lobes that are involved in sexual arousal.”


    • Gjallarbru | Jun 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm |

      Shut up pothead! ;P

      I’ll just say that my last prolonged meditation (around 2hrs) brought me before what appeared to be Ganesh. It was an incredible experience which certainly had nothing to envy from sex. Meeting Ganesh in a vision is certainly not sex, but it was no less intense.

      Imagine that, an experimenter of northern traditions, having Ganesh show up during meditation. I don’t know when I’ll have both the time and energy for such lengthy meditation, but I’m looking forward to it as much as any sex I could have.

      This is also why I don’t take drugs myself. My brains conjures up strange enough experiences on its own. Of course, pot or dmt would greatly reduce the time to attain a vision, but then I might have more difficulty remembering and integrating the experience.

      • Kevin Leonard | Jun 6, 2014 at 8:16 pm |

        Esoterically, sex is just an intense exchange of polarity energies.

        Given that Ganesh would reside “above”, while you were “below,” I would say you had some out of this world sex.

        • Gjallarbru | Jun 7, 2014 at 7:24 am |

          Thanks, you’ve given me a new point of view for that experience.

          • Kevin Leonard | Jun 7, 2014 at 10:26 am |

            At some level, everything in our experience can be explained as an interplay between yin and yang. It just gets much bigger when you start playing closer to the source. 😉

            I’ve had several luminous experiences with Ganesh, as well. None, however, as lucid as yours. Thanks for sharing.

      • Spider Man | Jun 6, 2014 at 11:17 pm |

        I’m also a western practitioner who has encountered and developed a relationship with Ganesh, or rather Ganesha which represents the transcended form. Ganesha is a wonderful entity who removes obstacles that inhibit an individual from developing solutions for problems in their life. This occurs because Ganesha symbolizes the destruction and transcendence of the ego. Statues and artist renditions of the Hindu being are typically depicted with a small mouse at the base of his feet, and this symbolizes that one should give attention to the “pest-like” ego in order to prevent it from causing too much of a ruckus. A big plus side to working with Ganesha is that he also readily fills your life with joy since he’s all about the pleasures and spoils of life (big ‘ole belly), so you can’t help but feel happy when you actively work with him.

        I’ve also undertaken numerous shamanic journeys while under the influence of the big four: LSD, Psilocybin, Cannabis, and DMT (not at the same time of course). However these experiences have helped me with encountering strange and culturally exotic entities since I’ve seen some awesome and weird beings, places, and things while on my travels. Plus they’ve helped shatter some deeply entrenched cultural views that most of us have been conditioned with here in the West (fast track), and this has allowed me to warm up to some truly different looking entities throughout my spiritual development (I’ve included a personal drawing of a being I encountered on my first and only shroom trip “Dark Mother.”)

        Most trips are so intense or significantly profound that you can’t help but integrate those experiences into your life. For instance, my “Dark Mother” experience started when I was undergoing an emotional purge. Basically I was rejected by a girl and decided to take shrooms while crying my eyes out. I then spent the next 20ish minutes in the fetal position on my bed which was surrounded by dark figures. All of a sudden an infinitely extending black tower surrounded by a purple mist appeared before me, and it was covered with snakes and worms. I eventually stumbled upon a group of individuals who were screaming and writhing in pain as they attempted to escape a tar-like substance. I asked them “why are you in pain?” They responded with “we are your pain, but you are refusing to accept us and that is why you are suffering.” So I physically embraced them and told them I was glad to have them in my life even though they represented my pain. However my outright rejection of them only caused me more needless suffering. Another entity approached me and recognized herself as my “Dark Mother,” who then proceeded to embrace me in her loving arms and to thank me for accepting the shadow (my pain) and ultimately mending a fractured piece of myself. She then explained to me that going against the grain of the natural state of a person/place/thing will only create conflict since what is expected or desired is not real. This in turn causes either or both members of the situation or relationship to become frustrated. The trip then exploded with colors and I viewed everything as being surrounded by ocean, while humans looked like transparent jellyfish who communicated by literally sending waves to their fellows. I saw how words truly cause “ripples” in your environment, although each sounded like sustained or suspended notes from an electric keyboard. Words are simply waves and sounds manifested by the vibration of instruments called vocal chords. It’s just interesting to experience things like this because they make you see the world in a completely different light.

        Thank you for sharing your encounter(s) with Ganesh since it’s always interesting to hear about experiences beyond my own.

        • Gjallarbru | Jun 7, 2014 at 7:24 am |

          With such a fleshed out text I feel I should share more, so my encounter went like this.

          As I was meditating, a vision of a garden suddenly appeared. I wish I could draw it out as the garden was of absolute beauty. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere near doing justice to such a scene in a painting or drawing. In the centre of the garden, a sort of miniature temple was floating there. There were steps to reach it, but the base of the temple itself wasn’t touching the ground.

          As I approached, I saw there was a lonely figure sitting in the temple. Going up the steps, the feeling was of being called by an irresistible voice, yet there was no sound.

          When I finally reached the temple itself, it was of course Ganesh. We had a “conversation”, but words were not used, it was a deeper communication. Even though it has been months, I’m afraid I still don’t have the words to express what was said. In truth, in was a message of both disappointment and great hope. Ganesh, it seems, expected more out of me. After a while, the vision ended, and I returned…

    • Ted Heistman | Jun 7, 2014 at 11:59 am |

      Weed is a fucking aphrodisiac. Its true.

      Not everyone has spiritual experiences on so called “entheogens” though. Is it because of intention? I have spiritual experiences on mushrooms and weed, others watch goofy t.v. shows.

      • Matt Staggs | Jun 7, 2014 at 12:01 pm |

        I think weed *can* be an aphrodisiac, but it can also lock your ass to the couch in front of the television for a few hours. Depends on the strain. Or so I’m told…

        • Spider Man | Jun 7, 2014 at 4:06 pm |

          It mainly depends on the individual and their experience with using psychedelics because I could barely maintain a coherent thought when I tried LSD for the first time. However (11 trips later) I get very productive when I “break through” since I spent the past few trips either meticulously cleaning my living space, or writing papers for college.

          Weed on the other hand is a cake walk compared to its fellow entheogens because it’s no where near as intense as LSD for instance. Although it’s great because of its availability, simple “break through,” and the chill-factor. One of my favorite ways to relax is to perform the LBRP/LIRP, toke it up, and enjoy a lavender-scented epsom salt bath. As I mentioned previously, it’s ultimately up to the user in how they would like to spend their time while poking around other planes of existence 😛

      • Kevin Leonard | Jun 7, 2014 at 1:58 pm |

        My experience has shown that intention is a key component, along with the person’s capacity for spiritual experiences. Dawkins, for instance, only experienced dizziness and twitching when he put on the so-called “God Helmet,” where others had transcendental experiences. (Tell me again, scientismists, why I should listen to his opinions about spiritual reality?)

        But dosing is also very important. Every plant has its powers and its poisons (ala Prendell in “Pharmako Poeia:”). In attempting to describe marijuana’s use as an entheogen, I use the metaphor of a light shining through a room with many windows. Blow a puff of smoke in the room and the light becomes very apparent, where you may not have even noticed it before. But continue to blow smoke into the room, and soon you just have a smoky room. Hello couch.

  2. Simon Valentine | Jun 6, 2014 at 5:37 pm |

    don’t forget black holes

    they do astrophysical projections too
    it’s illuminating
    light a flashlight down a hallway

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