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Neurotheology is the study of the brain’s role in spiritual and religious experiences.  Rather than assuming that a person’s spiritual experience is the result of a visitation from God or a spirit outside one’s self, neurotheology proposes that the spiritual experience, like every other sensation, memory, thought, or dream, is the result of a neurological process and comes from within. Life itself is a neurological experience, consciousness moving through space-time.  Why would the spiritual experience be any different?

Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891 – 1976) pioneered mapping of brain regions and their functions.  He was the first to experiment with electrical stimulation of brain areas during open brain surgery while the patient is awake and responsive. His discoveries built upon the work of others, such as French physician Paula Broca, for whom the language center of the brain is named.  These neurosurgeons proved that the human experience is a function of brain activity. When stimulating different areas, patients saw images, re-experienced vivid memories, heard music, or felt bodily sensations or smells. Experiences could be created simply by electrical stimulation of the brain.

Consciousness is usually bounded by the physical sensations and limitations of the body.  But not always. Dreams and hallucinations may create illusions of bodily activity and sensations. Spiritual experiences are often characterized by out-of-body experiences. In deep meditation, some people experience “pure consciousness”, dissipation of ego, awareness without thought, disassociation from the body, and an overwhelming feeling of love and oneness. This loss of self and the sensation of merging with a greater consciousness may also include an experience of brilliant white light. Some yogis starve themselves and meditate for days on end in search of this experience.  Others may have it spontaneously during epileptic seizures, at times of deep emotional upheaval, or as the result of a near death experience (NDE).

Death is an unknown–where does consciousness go when we die?– but roughly 4% of the human population have had an NDE, and the vast majority of people who have had one report that the experience changed their lives.  Nothing like a glimpse into the vast infinity beyond the physical realm to put things into perspective.

But what happens inside the brain during the spiritual experience or NDE?  Advances in neuroscience and brain imaging technology make the scientific study of these processes possible and offer the possibility of bridging science and spirituality.  Come back to this blog for updates on this important and controversial field of study.

Wilder Penfield, MD, brief biography:

International Associaton for Near-Death Studies reports effects of NDEs:

Melvin Morse, MD, studies NDEs in children:

Andrew Newberg, Principles of Neurotheology:

Todd Murphy, author of Sacred Pathways: The Brain’s Role in Spiritual and Mystic Expereinces, with a forward by HH the Dalai Lama. Professor Murphy is a technical advisor to The God Helmet movie.