Where The Brain Processes Spiritual Experiences

This new study, conducted by Yale University and Columbia University's Spirituality Mind Body Institute, looked at the experiences of people from various religions and with varying definitions of what makes spirituality.

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Neurobiological Home For The Spiritual Experience

The “parietal cortex,” or more precisely, the “left inferior parietal lobule,” is the part of the brain that processes spiritual experiences. When a person becomes aware of himself or others, this area of the brain is also stimulated. It is also boosted when a person's attention abilities are used.

The researchers interviewed 27 young adults for their study, which was led by Marc Potenza, a Yale Child Study Center professor of psychiatry and neuroscience. They inquired about their previous stressful, calming, and spiritual experiences.

Following the interview, the subjects were subjected to fMRI scans while listening to recordings of their transcendent experiences.

Even though they had diverse spiritual experiences, their brains exhibited identical activity emanating from the parietal cortex, according to the fMRI images. While they continued to listen to their respective recordings or, in effect, as they experienced their various transcendent states, the participants' brain waves replicated a similar pattern.

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“We observed reduced activity in the left inferior parietal lobule (IPL) in the spiritual condition compared to the neutral-relaxing condition, a result that suggests the IPL may contribute significantly to perceptual processing and self-other representations during spiritual experiences,” the researchers wrote in the study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The study also found that spiritual stimuli made the brain's medial thalamus and caudate, which are involved for sensory and emotional processing, less sensitive than stress.

Spiritual Experience And Mental Health

The scientists determined that spiritual experience is not restricted to an individual's level of religiosity based on similar brain patterns observed despite the individuals' differing perspectives on spirituality.

Spiritual experience can range from a sense of being one with God to a sense of being one with nature or when one accepts humanity. It can be as simple as being elated during a sporting game to have a spiritual experience.

Finally, the researchers claim that the study will aid professionals in better understanding how spiritual experiences affect people's mental health.

“Spiritual experiences are powerful states that can have a significant impact on people's life,” Potenza explained.

He added that “understanding the brain basis of spiritual experiences may help us better comprehend their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addiction diseases.”

What happens to the brain during a spiritual experience?

Spiritual practices have long been hallmarks of mutual aid groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Spirituality can be a crucial component of addiction rehabilitation because it can be a key method for a person seeking recovery to connect to something outside of themselves. Researchers and trend watchers have found that Americans are becoming less religious while yet identifying as more spiritual. Spiritual participation can help people achieve a “sense of unity with something larger than themselves,” according to the study's authors. Scientists used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine exactly how spirituality activated or deactivated certain regions of the brain, changing how people perceive and interact with the world around them, in a recent brain study directed by Dr. Mark Potenza at Yale called Neural Correlates of Spiritual Experiences.

Spirituality, according to Dr. Christina Puchalski, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, is “the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose, as well as the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, self, others, nature, and the significant or sacred.” Importantly, the study's authors endorsed a wide range of personal definitions of spiritual experience, such as attending a religious service at a place of worship, connecting with nature, practicing mindfulness meditation, and praying in silence.

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Spirituality and religious practices are important in many people's lives; 81 percent of adults in the United States identify as spiritual, religious, or both. Despite the fact that the majority of adults in the United States engage in some type of spiritual practice, little is known about what happens in specific areas of the brain during these spiritual experiences. Although studies have related various brain measures to characteristics of spirituality, none have attempted to investigate spiritual experiences directly, especially when employing a broader, modern understanding of spirituality that is not necessarily religious. This study examined neuronal structures and systems that are activated when we participate in spiritual practice using an unique type of brain imaging called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When individuals were asked to recall spiritual experiences, the fMRI was able to detect activity in the brain by detecting variations in blood flow to various regions of the brain.

The large range of spiritual experiences that individuals can find personally meaningful is a possible difficulty in this study. The study's authors attempted to address this by asking participants to describe a circumstance in which they felt “a deep connection with a higher power or a spiritual presence” using a tailored guided-imagery fMRI approach. Their stories were put into a script, which was then recorded and played back to the subject during the fMRI scan. The brain activation recorded during a participant's recall of a spiritual encounter was compared to measures conducted while they listened to narrations of neutral and stressful situations.

The fact that the participants were entirely in charge of their narratives was crucial to the researchers' ability to find patterns in brain activity across a wide range of spiritual experiences.

The Inferior Parietal Lobe, which is related with perceptual processing, is shown in blue.

Lower levels of activity in some areas of the brain were linked to spiritual experiences:

  • The IPL, or inferior parietal lobe, is a region of the brain that deals with perceptual processing and the notion of self in time and place.
  • The emotional and sensory processing centers of the brain, the thalamus and striatum

This research adds to a growing body of knowledge about spirituality and its relationship to brain processing. These findings suggest that spiritual encounters alter perception and can help to mitigate the negative consequences of stress on mental health. The areas of the brain responsible for stress were shown to be less active in this study, whereas the parts responsible for social interaction were more active. A sense of belonging to someone or something bigger than oneself, as well as community involvement, have been shown to help people recover from substance use disorders and other behavioral health concerns.

Marc Potenza, MD, PhD, is a Psychiatrist who specializes in Behavioral addictions, and his work at Yale in this essential area is a welcome addition to the field's researchers. Spiritual Engagement in Drug Use Disorder Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery: Neural Correlates of Spiritual Experiences has promising implications for spiritual engagement in substance use disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery. Participants were scanned while reminiscing about their own unique spiritual experience, but the results were consistent across the board. This means that in order to reap the advantages, a person does not need to engage in a specific sort of spiritual practice, but rather can engage in whichever version of participation is most compatible with their particular views. This encourages patients to engage in a variety of spiritual activities as part of their treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Spirituality helps alleviate stress and create emotions of closeness, according to this study, which established a means to assess and illustrate what many recovery and treatment communities have known for years. Fellowship and treatment programs can empower individuals in recovery to use spirituality as a proven method to improve their mental health by learning what parts of the brain are affected during spiritual practice.

Where is the God spot in the brain?

As a result, it's not surprising that the brain is tuned for religious experiences. Indeed, a religious evolutionary approach argues that humans are predisposed to religious beliefs.

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Evidence that spiritual (including religious) experiences have a neurological foundation supports this viewpoint. Despite the fact that there is no singular “God spot” in the brain, experiences of self-transcendence are linked to decreased electrical activity in the right parietal lobe, which is located above the right ear (2).

What part of the brain responds to religion?

Religion engages the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, narcotics, and other addictive activities, according to a recent study covered by Medical News Today. Share on Pinterest Devoutly religious people have more activity in the nucleus accumbens of the brain.

What parts of the brain are involved in religious hallucinations?

The right prefrontal cortex (partially the region homologous to Broca's area), the left inferior supramarginal gyrus, and the transverse temporal gyrus (Heschl's gyrus) all showed a link between volume reduction and the severity of hallucinations.

Which part of the brain controls spirituality?

The research found that activity in the parietal cortex, a part of the brain involved in self-awareness and attention processing, appears to be a common feature across people who have had a range of spiritual experiences.

What are examples of spiritual experiences?

A spiritual experience is defined as an occurrence that is beyond human comprehension in terms of how it may have occurred in the first place. Situations like avoiding death in an otherwise deadly situation or incomprehensible monetary gain are examples of these types of encounters. Another example is looking back in time to see how things unfolded in ways you could never have imagined. While you may not have had a “burning bush” encounter, you should be aware that spiritual experiences are not one-size-fits-all. Here are some suggestions to help you determine if you experienced a spiritual encounter or not.

What part of the brain lights up when you pray?

And your reality scans show that persons who spend a lot of time praying or meditating develop a dark spot in their parietal lobe, which is responsible for creating a sense of self.

What happens to your brain when you pray in tongues?

Reduced activity in the frontal lobes, a part of the brain associated with self-control, was observed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The November issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the official publication of the International Society for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry, features this groundbreaking work, which used functional imaging of the brain while participants were speaking in tongues.

While the individuals were speaking in tongues, radiologists noticed increased or decreased brain activity by monitoring regional cerebral blood flow using SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging. The imaging was then compared to what happened in the brain as the participants performed gospel music.

Principal Investigator Andrew Newberg, MD, Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies at Penn, and Director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, says, “We detected a lot of functional alterations in the brain.” “The fact that there was less activity in the frontal lobes during the practice of speaking in tongues is remarkable since these people truly feel that the spirit of God is moving through them and influencing what they say. Our brain imaging research demonstrates that during this activity, these people are not in control of the regular language regions, which fits with their statement of a loss of conscious control while speaking in tongues.”

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Newberg then went on to say, “These findings could be viewed as something else taking over the subject's sense of self. We assume it's being taken over by another area of the brain, but we couldn't detect where this happened in this imaging investigation. We believe this is the first scientific imaging study examining variations in cerebral activity when someone speaks in tongues, looking at what truly happens to the brain. Other alterations in the brain, such as those involved in emotions and developing our sense of self, were also discovered in this study.”

According to Newberg, the changes in the brain that occur when people talk in tongues represent a complicated pattern of brain activity. Because this is the first study to look at it, Newberg believes that more research is needed to confirm the findings and debunk the mystery around this fascinating religious phenomena.


Zygon. 2001;36:105-136. Joseph R. The limbic system and the soul: evolution and the neuroanatomy of religious experience.

Does God sleep deep in the belly of the brain, according to D.L. Smith? A rebuttal to neurotheology. 2006;13:81-99; Josephinum J Theol. 2006;13:81-99; Josephinum J Theol. 2006;13:81-99

Religious and mystical states: a neuropsychological paradigm. Zygon. 1993;28:177-200. d'Aquili EG, Newberg AB.

Does prayer increase dopamine?

According to a study conducted by academics at the University of Pennsylvania, praying raises dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is the hormone linked to happiness, and it's also the hormone released in the brain when you eat chocolate.