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03 Routes of Exploration in Neurotheology

3. Routes of Exploration in Neurotheology

3.1. Neurotheology and Neuroimaging

Neuroimagingis the field of science in which various technologies are used provide images of the brain structure and brain activity. MRI, for example, is magnetic resonance imaging which provides a 3 dimensional scan of the brain which can then be viewed in a computer and examined from all sides including the interior. CT scans (computerized tomography) similarly scan the brain’s structure. A fMRI is functional magnetic resonance imaging which means that brain activity is monitored rather than just the brain itself. Neuroimaging is used for various reasons, such as finding a brain tumor or measuring activity in various areas of the brain during dream-states.

To get down to the nitty-gritty, functional imaging techniques detect and measure blood flow in the brain and they measure the metabolic activity in the neuronal tissue. Like all living tissue in your body, the brain cells need fuel to work; they need to metabolize. The brain cells use oxygen and glucose as fuel and convert it into energy. Functional imaging technologies measure this metabolism in addition to regional cerebral blood flow. Generally, first a baseline scan is made of the brain in rest condition. This is also referred to as a control. [Azari, 2006, pgs. 33-36] In other words, normal brain activity is measured and serves as a base-line from which to measure some other condition, something different than the “normal” brain activity that is measured in the baseline scan. This other condition can be the dream state, meditation, an epileptic seizure and so on. The difference between the two scans is what is imaged and studied. For example, one study measured the activity of the brain of subjects reading/reciting instructions on how to use a phone card. This was used as the baseline because it is something more-or-less neutral. Brain activity was again measured when the subjects were reading/reciting religious scripture that gives them a feeling of spirituality. A children nursery rhyme was also read/recited to get a reading on a happy (not neutral but still not spiritual) feeling in the subjects. The differences between these measurements were then studied. [Azari, 2006, pg. 38]

So, neural activity is measured in the brain of subjects as they experience transcendental states as opposed to neutral states. It is the metabolism in the brain that is measured with various technologies in the field of neuroimaging.

All this is a gross simplification, of course. The metabolism that is measured is quite complex and (in my opinion) wondrous. With SPECT (single photon computed emission tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography) neuroimaging light radiating from the brain is measured! As the brain metabolizes glucose and oxygen, it releases positrons; it emits photons of light. One can say that our brains glow! With fMRI, the blood flow levels in various areas of the brain are measured. This is referred to as BOLD (blood oxygenation level-dependent). Brain activity causes subtle changes in the magnetic field in and around the brain. [Azari, 2006] An fMRI machine detects these magnetic changes, generally on the inner surface of a magnetic tube. I have had my brain scanned many times with an MRI (not fMRI) and I can tell you that it is a subtly weird experience. If you pay careful attention and you are sensitive enough, you can feel something scanning your brain. It is also quite loud and earplugs are recommended.

Studies with neuroimaging demonstrate that activity in specific areas of the brain coincide with religious feelings and experiences. [McKinney, 1994]

As Nina P. Azari writes in Neuroimaging Studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review, “The role the human brain plays in any experience cannot be assessed without recourse to the human neurosciences…Hence, neuroscience, specifically, studies of the live human brain, may have something important to contribute to the non-neuroscientific literature on the topic of religious experience. The question of interest from a neuroscientific perspective is ‘What is going on in the brain when a person reports having a religious experience?’…Functional neuroimaging techniques have made it possible, for the first time, to study brain function in normal, living humans, so afford an opportunity to investigate phenomena considered unique to human beings, more specifically, ‘higher-order’ cognitive functions.” [Azari, 2006]

In other words, to some extent, thoughts, feelings and other brain activity can be monitored and mapped with technology and therefore we can graph the activity in the brain during transcendental experiences. This mapping becomes more sensitive and sophisticated as the field of neuroimaging develops.

Psychologist David Wulf claims that neuroimaging, coupled with the fact that spiritual experiences are universal across human cultures and throughout history “suggest a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain” [McKinney, 1994]

In 2001, the European Journal of Neuroscience printed a study entitled “Neural Correlates of Religious Experience” by Azari et al in which it was found that “During religious recitation, self-identified religious subjects activated a frontal-parietal circuit, composed of the dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal and medial parietal cortex.” in other words, functional neuroimaging technology showed that while reading religious scripture aloud, religious–minded individuals displayed activity in special areas of the brain that are different than that of every-day mental activity. [Azari et al, 2001] It must be pointed out here that although a religious-minded person does experience an alteration of consciousness when reciting religious scripture, usually this is not nearly as intense of an experience as what we call the “religious experience” itself. Nonetheless, this study shows that current neuroimaging is sophisticated and sensitive enough to show a difference in the mental activity of scripture-reading by a religious person which is interesting enough itself.

In the book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg M.D., Eugene d’Aquili and coauthors (published in 2001) [Newberg, d’Aquili, 2001]studies of neuroimaging of meditating Buddhists and of Franciscan nuns in prayer are discussed among other things. As the publisher blurbs, “the sensation that Buddhists call ‘oneness with the universe’ and the Franciscans attribute to the palpable presence of God is not a delusion or a manifestation of wishful thinking but rather a chain of neurological events that can be objectively observed, recorded, and actually photographed. The inescapable conclusion is that God is hard-wired into the human brain.”

Among other things, their neuroimaging studies seemed to indicate that during transcendental experiences, the brain has decreased activity in the “object association areas” which make the distinction between the self and the non-self. [Newberg, d’Aquili, 2001] As Newberg says, “[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer,” in comparison with the same brains in a neutral mode. “This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices.”
Dr. Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. He is also Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Board-certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine.

Dr. Newberg has conducted “neuroimaging research projects on the study of aging and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.” In one study, individuals with memory problems were asked to practice meditation a little each day in effort to improve their memory. After eight weeks of practice, “they had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent…this is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.”

He has since worked on issues more central to “neurotheology” and seems to have an open-minded approach. On National Public Radio, Dr. Newberg said of the neuroimaging conducted under the label “neurotheology” that “one could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that,” Newberg says. “For neurotheology to really work as a field it needs to be very respectful and open to both perspectives.” [NPR, 2010]

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has used fMRI and EEG neuroimaging on six Buddhist monks already trained in meditation practices while they meditated specifically on raising compassion in themselves. During such meditation, neuroimaging showed a significant rise in activity of the left frontal lobe in the trained monks in contrast to individuals that were not trained in meditation. This study was conducted in association with the Mind and Life Institute and was discussed a the conference, held in 2000, Mind and Life VIII – Destructive Emotions. Selected dialogues from this conference were published in the book Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, edited by Daniel Goleman, 2003. We will return to the Mind and Life Institute in a dedicated section below.

It has been reported that Mario Beauregard, Ph.D.  has conducted experiments (in 2006) involving neuroimaging of the brains of nuns in ‘mystical states’ through prayer which seem to demonstrate that religious and spiritual experiences correlate with various areas of the brain and not just what some have been calling the ‘God center’ or the ‘God spot’. [Beauregard, 2006] He has says, “There is no God spot in the brain. Spiritual experiences are complex, like intense experiences with other human beings.” In his neuroimaging experiments with Carmelite nuns, several areas of the brain were active.

However, upon inspection it is clear that his neuroimaging was conducted when the nuns remembered past mystical states and not while actual experiencing mystical states; “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.” [Beauregard, 2006] Like psychedelic and other transcendental states, mystical states are what is called ‘state-specific’; one can not recreate the mystic state by memory any more than one can be drunk by remembering a time when they actually were drunk. There has been much criticism of the arguably pseudoscientific or unscientific conclusions that Beauregard has drawn from his already highly questionable neuroimaging experiments. Indeed, his book The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul co-authored by Denyse O’Leary seems to lack sound logic and ignores basic scientific reasoning with an unvalidated anti-materialist bias.

Mr. Beauregard seems to have an agenda to discredit the idea of the ‘God-spot’ in order to promote the idea that religious experiences are not in and of the brain or material at all but rather purely spiritual. But his studies and his writing do very little, if any, in service to this agenda. Beauregard seems to be of the camp that maintains the view that the cause is spiritual and that the brain activity is the effect.

Nina P. Azari’sNeuroimaging studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review has been mentioned and quoted above. Her intent here is to “offer a critical review of functional neuroimaging studies that have investigated religious experience (broadly conceived). The purpose of this review is to explore the extent to which neuroimaging studies may provide new insight into the nature and structure of religious experience.” [Azari, 2006]

She goes on to describe the functional imaging techniques that are used in such studies. She then discusses “the interpretive limits of any neuroimaging study (regardless of the topic of inquiry) and explore how they apply in the case of religious experience.” [Azari, 2006]

She then describes “each study (i.e., methods, results, conclusions) and offer a critical examination of the assumptions associated with those studies (especially as regards the concepts ‘religious’ and ‘experience’).” and “Finally, I will discuss how the recent neuroimaging studies, taken together, stand in relation to current non-neuroscientific theorizing about the nature and structure of religious experience. I conclude the chapter by considering prospects for future research.” [Azari, 2006]

3.2. Neuropharmacology

Psychoactive substances have been used to induce transcendental experiences since prehistory. However, it can not be said that they were used in a scientific manner until relatively recent times and therefor we will not go into great detail here. But we can not ignore the spiritual use of mind-altering substances because the alteration of the brain chemistry correlating with transcendental experiences is clearly within the scope of what is being called “neurotheology” today. We will content ourselves with a grossly abbreviated historical summary before moving on to modern scientific study.

In the Vedic tradition of Hinduism, it is clear that a psychoactive substance called soma was of central and seminal importance but its use and identity has been lost centuries ago. In Persia, haoma fulfilled the same religious role and its identity and use has also been lost long ago. In ancient Greece, a psychoactive substance called kykeon was used by initiates into the Eleusynian Mysteries. Like soma and haoma, the ingredient(s) of kykeon remains uncertain. It is no mystery that peoples of the Americas have long used peyote and San Pedro cacti (both containing mescaline), psilocybe mushrooms (containing psilocybin), ayahuasca and other hallucinogens for spiritual purposes. These are merely a few examples, but such substances have been and still are used throughout the world for spiritual purposes.

However, in Western culture the knowledge and use of such substances were more or less stamped out by Christian ignorance and were forgotten for centuries. In Europe, the use of hallucinogenic plants was viewed as a pagan abomination. Herbal healers were persecuted and the knowledge and practice was driven underground. So complete was the church’s eradication of this knowledge that, as author Marcus Boon points out, “When one reads the literature on witchcraft in medieval Europe, it is striking that the question of whether actual plants could have triggered phenomena associated with witchcraft was hardly even considered until about a decade ago.” [Boon, 2006] He was writing in 2002!

But the war against this knowledge was not just a phenomena of the Dark (Christian) Ages. It has lasted for centuries with only temporary resting periods. When encountered again in the new world, hallucinogens were treated with more Christian ignorance. The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, for example, was observed by the Spanish conquistadors, viewed as the Devil’s mockery of the Holy Sacrament and stamped out violently. The Spanish Franciscan friar and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagun wrote about the use of peyote among the natives in 1560 [Sahagun, 1961] and decided that their visions were of the Devil. In 1620, a decree from the Catholic Inquisition officially banned the practice. It was declared that these “herbs” were a means by which the Devil ensnared souls. The decree said that the use of peyote is “a superstitious action and reproved as opposed to the purity and sincerity of our Holy Catholic Faith, being so that this said herb, nor any other cannot posses the virtue and natural efficacy attributed to it for said effects, nor to cause the images, phantasms and representations on which are founded said divination, and that in these one sees notoriously the suggestion and assistance of the Devil…” [Ott, 1993]

In effect, the Church had decided that there was no natural science behind the effects of these hallucinogens, that their effects were entirely spiritual (albeit from the Devil) and that any use or study of these hallucinogens was banned with extreme prejudice. The European invaders hunted down those who still used these sacred substances until its use and knowledge disappeared from the frontier and hid deep in the mountains, jungles and deserts, far out of sight. So effective was this violent purge that even in the early 20th century scientists doubted that psilocybe mushrooms existed despite clear accounts of them by the Inquisitors who had banned them! It was insisted that dried peyote cacti had been mistaken for mushrooms!1.

This rabid dogged attitude was somewhat relaxed in the 1800s when commercial pharmaceutical and anthropological interests swelled. It was in the 1800’s that the potent hallucinogen ayahuasca was discovered by Western man and in which peyote was rediscovered. “The first account of the effects of peyote ingestion was given in 1887 by John Briggs, a physician in Dallas, Texas. Little attention was paid, however, and thus the account in the British Medical Journal of 1896 by the American psychiatrist, physician, and historical romance writer S. Weir Mitchell is usually considered the first one.” [Boon, 2002]

It was also in this century that psychoactive anesthetics like nitrous oxide and ether were discovered. These substances have triggered transcendental experiences that astounded many even if the revelations are usually forgotten within seconds. Some important thinkers have written about these experiences in the 19th century, an era before the anti-drug dogma of more recent decades.

Henry David Thoreau, a leadingtranscendentalist philosopher had a transcendental experience with ether during a dentist visit in 1851. He had an experience of the bodiless state that exists between lives or incarnations that is analogous to the out of body experience, the near death experience, the Tibetan Bardos and so on. We will return to this in a following section. [Thoreau, 1906]

The writer/philosopher/mystic Benjamin Paul Blood received ether during a dentist visit in 1860 and continued to experiment with ether for years after. He wrote that the ether experience provided a revelation that contained the inexpressible solution to all philosophical issues, especially those concerning the self and the universe. He wrote, “No poetry, no emotion known to the normal sanity of man can furnish a hint of its primeval prestige, and its all but appalling solemnity.” [Blood, 1874]

The British Society for Psychical Research was inspired by Blood’s claim that nitrous oxide could give one the experience of metaphysical illumination. Members of the society went on to experiment themselves. Blood’s experiments also spurred the American psychiatrist and philosopher William James to experiment with anesthetics. James reviewed Blood’s The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy in the Atlantic Monthly in 1874 [James, 1874] and wrote about his own experience in 1882 with the Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide [James, 1882] In 1896 he wrote about experiences with these substances, “With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination.” [James, 1896] His Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide was published in Psychological Review in 1898. He included his thoughts and reflections on the nitrous oxide experience in his master-work The Varieties of the Religious Experience, published in 1902. One of his most famous quotes concerns the nitrous oxide experience, about which he said that, “our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” [James, 1902]

William James is still occasionally referred to as the “nitrous oxide philosopher”. For the sake of fairness, I must say that this is a very narrow moniker for James. The scope of his work very broad and deep and more-or-less encompassed the entirety of the religious experience. [James, 1902] However, as a trigger of profound mystical experiences (and only because it gave him profound mystical experiences), nitrous oxide was an indispensable influence on his life and work.

What is relevant about William James here is not only that he had transcendental experiences with nitrous oxide, but also that he balanced the scientific with the mystical. He took an empirical approach to matters of religion and mysticism and applied his background in psychology and philosophy and yet he was eager to actually have religious/mystical experiences himself so as to fully understand them. He studied the transcendental from both inside and outside; both objectively and subjectively. Because of this, I argue that he is an important precursor to “neurotheology”, as is Crowley, Huxley, Smith, Leary, Alpert, Watts and others. No doubt, if neuroimaging technology was available in Jame’s time, he would have included it in his studies. He did, however, use what was available to study these experiences. James experimented with chloral hydrate in 1870, amyl nitrate in 1875, nitrous oxide in 1882 and peyote (which contains mescaline) in 1896. In academic culture, this is downplayed while in the counter-culture it is often forgotten that he was a great scholar and had tremendous academic knowledge and education.

This somewhat liberated attitude of the later 1800’s regarding consciousness-altering substances was temporary as is illustrated by the cultural divide on William James mentioned above, for example. Today, these early explorers are regarded with suspicion or else ignored by the academic authorities (with the governments’ leashes around their necks) that ought to be ashamed of their own lack of objectivity in this area. Atlantic Monthly‘s Dmitri Tymoczko writes that “James’s experiments with nitrous oxide, when they have been noticed at all, have been variously derided. Even in the nineteenth century, skeptical scientists found his interest in exotic mental phenomena misguided, if not reckless. Religious believers tend to resent the comparison of intoxication to religious inspiration. Veterans of the counterculture, who have all had similar if not more-intense drug revelations, tend to think of James as a dabbler. These criticisms are shortsighted, and slight the fact that James was America’s first philosophical genius. Perhaps more than any philosopher before him, he succeeded in combining the skepticism of the empirical scientist, the form of consciousness that ‘diminishes, discriminates, and says no,’ with the hyperbole of the mystical visionary, the form of consciousness that ‘expands, unites, and says yes.’ If drugs helped him to open the doors of consciousness in this welcoming way, perhaps we should rethink some of our assumptions about drug use and its possible role in human life. For example, can drugs play a role in authentic religious experience? And if so, what should be the legal and moral status of religious drug use?” [Tymoczko, 1996]

I agree with Tymoczko emphatically when he writes that “William James thought more clearly about these issues than we are able to think today, and we may want to look to James as we consider the place of drugs in contemporary life.” [Tymoczko, 1996] Indeed!

I stated earlier that this ignorance was not just a Dark Age phenomena and that it has lasted for centuries. I state here that it persists today. The only difference is that rather than the church (which has no valid authority to decide matters of science and medicine) leading the ban, the government (which has no valid authority to decide matters of science and medicine) now holds the torch and pitchfork at the head of the mob and holds the reigns it has placed on science and academia. It is just as ludicrous that politicians decide what science can or can not study as it was for the church to make such decisions. In the 1960s a decree from the U.S. government (which was not much less ignorant than the Inquisition) again effectively banned both use and study of these hallucinogens in the USA and in ally nations, tying one arm of science behind its back while scientists behind the Iron Curtain were free to make progress in the area. This ban largely persists even now in the early 21st century. Only with long bureaucratic battles can a scientist study these substances in the least.

In the late 1990s, after years of bureaucratic chess with the government, Rick Strassman M.D. was given permission to study the hallucinogenic substance DMT in a carefully controlled medical context. Strassman is the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in Albuquerque where he conducted experiments in which volunteers were given DMT. DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) is a chemical found in various plants and animals, including humans. In humans, evidence suggests that it is produced in the pineal gland in the brain. Strassman argues that like serotonin, a close cousin, DMT is essential for normal consciousness (at low levels) and dream-states (at higher levels). All the ingredients and enzymes needed to produce DMT are already in the pineal gland and it has been conclusively demonstrated that the human body does contain DMT. However it has not been conclusively demonstrated that DMT it is produced by the pineal gland specifically, though it is the most plausible candidate.

The pineal gland is where mystics claim the “third-eye” chakra resides. DMT acts just like other neurotrasmitters such as serotonin and melatonin but with drastically different subjective effects. It has been theorized that the pineal gland releases DMT into the brain during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and may be related to vivid dreams, out of body experiences (OBEs), experiences of disembodied entities and so on.

Sufficient doses of DMT produce effects much like very large doses of psilocybe mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.). In fact DMT and psilocybin are very similar (and both are very similar to serotonin); the psilocybin molecule (4-PO-DMT) is a DMT molecule with an extra part or “appendage”. It is not necessary to go into great detail here. Suffice to say that DMT, psilocybin, melatonin and serotonin are all very similar to each other and act in very similar ways in the human brain.

In Dr. Strassman’s studies, DMT was administered in a controlled laboratory setting in 400 sessions conducted on 60 volunteers. The subjects very commonly had experiences of encounters with disembodied entities like angels, gods, or ‘inter-dimensional aliens’. They also commonly felt as if they had left their body and were in some ‘other space’ or dimension, often inside a round room, a flying saucer, a bubble or something analogous. Most of the subjects reported that their experience was powerfully spiritual or ‘transcendent’ and intensely vivid in both color and detail, reportedly sometimes more so than what they can see with their physical eyes.

Dr. Strassman has published his findings in both scientific papers and in a book for the general public calledDMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences (2001). In the book, Strassman claims that DMT is first produced in the brain of the human fetus in its 49th day. This is also the prenatal period when we see the first pineal tissue in the fetus, when we first see signs of male or female traits. He notes that in Tibetan Buddhism, it is thought that after death the soul remains out of body for 49 days. It is said that it enters an unborn fetus on its 49th day of conception. Strassman also says that as the body dies, the pineal gland floods the brain with DMT. Indeed, the DMT experience is analogous to the near death experience (NDE). If and when the brain is flooded with DMT, one has the experience of death whether or not one actually dies or remains dead. If the DMT experience is analogous to the experience of death, death is analogous to the DMT experience. Put it all together and this suggests that a dose of DMT from the pineal gland correlates with the soul’s transition into and out of the human body. [Strassman, 2001, 2005, 2008]

Dr. Strassman has also since (legally) conducted experiments with psilocybin which is similar to DMT. Both DMT and psilocybin are very similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin in molecular structure and while they act in almost exactly the same way in the brain, DMT and psilocybin induce somewhat different experiences than each other and radically different states of consciousness than serotonin.

In 2006 a study conducted at John Hopkins Medical Institute was released and printed in the journal Psychopharmacology in July, 2006 titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” [Griffiths, 2006]This was a double-blind study in which psilocybin was administered to volunteers who were “hallucinogen-naïve adults reporting regular participation in religious or spiritual activities.” [Griffiths, 2006] The subjects answered a questionnaire immediately after the session and 2 months later. In addition, “community observers” rated changes in the subjects’ attitudes and behaviors. The study found that psilocybin “increased measures of mystical experience.” and that “At 2 months, the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior consistent with changes rated by community observers.” The study concluded that “When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences. The ability to occasion such experiences prospectively will allow rigorous scientific investigations of their causes and consequences.” [Griffiths, 2006] The questionnaire also revealed that a majority of the subjects rated their psilocybin experience to be among the top 5 most meaningful experiences in their life and roughly 15% stated that it was the single most meaningful experience of their entire life.

I pause to note here that this study, like the follow-up study on the participants of the Marsh Chapel Experiment (mentioned above in the section “Early Use of the Term ‘Neurotheology’ and Early Scientific Inquiry) with psilocybin, shows that subjects displayed altered traits and not just altered states. This is important, as has stated and written in various places by Huston Smith who is both an expert in world religions and, as noted above, quite familiar with psychedelics. 2.

Ian McGregor, a professor of pharmacology states that it is not surprising that the study showed that psilocybin can induce a mystical state. “Psilocybin and related hallucinogens have been used since ancient times in religious rituals and this study is really formalising [sic]…what many people already know,” However, he has stated that the longer term positive effects on the subjects is “remarkable” and that “to see a positive effect two months later is quite striking.” [Skatsoon, 2006] Also commenting on the study, professor of pharmacy David Nichols stated that this study suggests that psilocybin produces similar “molecular alterations in the brain that underlie religious and mystical experiences” and that psilocybin apparently causes changes in the brain that are analogous those produced by fasting, meditation, sleep deprivation or near-death experiences that result in religious experiences. [Griffiths, 2006] Professor McGregor also says that the study makes a significant contribution to the field of “neurotheology” and offers insight into “molecular alterations in the brain that underlie religious and mystical experiences”. [Griffiths, 2006]

3.3. Psychology

(…yet to come…)

3.4 Electro-Magnetic Stimulation

In the 1980s, neuroscientist Dr. Michael Persinger experimented with the “Koren helmet” which emits a complex magnetic fluctuation stimulating the temporal lobe in the brain of the subject wearing it. It was reported that the magnetic stimulation induced mystical or religious experiences, altered states of consciousness and seemingly paranormal experiences such as intense experience of disembodied entities or aliens present in the room. [Persinger, 1983]This prompted the renaming of the Koren Helmet to the “God Helmet”. Though sensationalized in the media, it should be mentioned that these experiments have not successfully replicated by other researchers. It seems the only independent research failed to manifest the incredible results of Dr. Persinger. [Granqvist, 2005]

3.5. Isolation Tanks

(…yet to come…)


1. So utterly complete was the neglect and ignorance in our western world of the ethnoborological [sic] aspects of Aztec and other Mexican shamanism, that in 1915, William E. Safford, a reputable and distinguished USA botanist who was than [sic] a sort of expert on the subject of many Native American psychotropic plants, claimed that the visionary mushrooms as described in the Spanish histories did not in fact exist and that the Mesoamérican Indians had never used such, whether before, during, or after the conquest. Disdaining the graphic testimony of several Spanish chroniclers, Safford dismissed the well-documented evidence of the chroniclers, mostly clerics, who described as mushroomic, the effects the mushrooms allegedly had upon those who consumed them.

Safford (1915) presented a botanical society the results of his study of an Aztec sacred inebriant referred to in a few historical sources as teonanácatl which means “wondrous mushroom.” He claimed that the so-called wondrous mushrooms were in fact dried peyote buttons and that no mushrooms had been used as inebriants by the native peoples of Mesoamérica. Safford’s colleagues displayed little interest when he claimed that the word teonanácatl simply meant peyote. In his paper, he reproduced a photograph of dried peyote buttons. These could easily have been mistaken for dried mushroom-caps, which is what they vaguely resembled to the untrained eye. Safford relied on the fact that “three centuries have failed to reveal that an endemic fungus is being used as an intoxicant in Mexico. Nor is such a fungus mentioned either in works on mycology or pharmacology, yet the belief prevails even now that there is a narcotic Mexican fungus.”

“…As late as 1921, Safford still held firm to his theory by again denying the existence of the sacred mushrooms, claiming that they were simply dried peyote buttons…”

“…thanks to [Safford’s] prominence the mushrooms continued to be obscured from the world until the late 1930’s when they were once again brought to the attention of the scientific community.”

“…In the second decade of this century, Austrian Blas Pablo Reko (1919), a physician with an interest in ethnobotany, learned that some groups of Indians living in the Mexican state of Oaxaca were still using psychoptic mushrooms in secret ceremonies perhaps involving ancient rites. These rites were performed apparently for the purpose of divinatory healing. Reko published his findings in a journal entitled El México Antiguo”

“…Reko subsequently discussed this discovery with his colleagues, who paid little attention to his mushroomic theories and showed no interest in pursuing this information on the supposititious [sic] use of inebriating mushrooms by the Indians of Mesoamérica.” – Allen, John W. (2006) Mushroom Pioneers 


2. “The goal is not altered states but altered traits.” – The way things are: conversations with Huston Smith on the spiritual life by Huston Smith edited by Phil Cousineau, 2003, University of California Press, Berkely. “altered traits are more important than altered states.” The Essential Rumi by Rumi, 1997, Harper San Francisco. “I am fond of the maxim that religious life is not about altered states but about altered traits.” in Smith, Huston interviewed by Timothy White. (1998). “Understanding Psychedelic Mysticism: An Interview with Huston Smith”. Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism Number 49, Summer 1998


Azari, et al;. 2001, “Neural Correlates of Religious Experience”, European Journal of Neuroscience 13(8):1649-52, 200

Azari, Nina P., 2006, “Neuroimaging studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review” in McNamara, Patrick, Ed. Where God and science Meet – How Brain and Evolutionary studies Alter our Understanding of Religion 2006, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT

Beauregard, Mario. (2006). “Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns”, Neuroscience Letters. 26 June 2006

Blood, Benjamin Paul. (1874). The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy cited in Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

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

Griffiths, R.R., W. A. Richards, U. McCann & R. Jesse “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” Psychopharmacology, July 11, 2006 Received: 20 January 2006 / Accepted: 27 May 2006, CopyrightSpringer-Verlag 2006.

James, William (1874). (Review of) “The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy”, The Atlantic Monthly; November 1874;Volume 33, No. 205; pages 627-628.

James, William, (1882) “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide.” Mind. 1882; Vol 7.

James, William. 1917 [1896]. “On Some Hegelisms” in James, The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

James, William. (1902). The Varieties of the Religious Experience

McKinney, L (1994). Neurotheology:Virtual Religion in the 21st Century

Newberg, Andrew; d’Aquili, Eugene; Rause, Vince; (2001). Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Ballantine Books

NPR online, December 15th, 2010

Ott, Jonathan. (1993). Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History, Natural Products Co., Kennewick, WA, ISBN: 0-9614234-2-0, ISBN: 0-9614234-3-9

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

Sahagun, Bernardino de (1961). Florentine Codes: General History of the Things of New Spain vol. II (book 10)

Skatsoon, Judy. (2006). Magic Mushrooms Hit the God Spot, ABC Online, July 12, 2006

Strassman, Rick (2001) DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences, 320 pages, Park Street Press, 2001

Strassman, Rick (2005) Hallucinogens (chapter), in Mind-Altering Drugs: The Science Of Subjective Experience, 402 pages, Oxford University Press, 2005

Strassman, Rick (with Slawek Wojtowicz, Luis Eduardo Luna and Ede Frecska), (2008) “Inner Paths to Outer Space: Journeys to Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies” , 376 pages, Park Street Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1594772245

Thoreau, Henry David 1906. Writings of H.D. Thoreau. 20 vols. Boston: Houghton Milton cited in Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Tymoczko, Dmitri. (1996). “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher”, Atlantic Monthly, May 1996

02 Early Use of the Term Neurotheology and Early Exploration

The neologism (new word) neurotheology seems to have been first used in print in 1962 in Aldous Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian opposite to his dystopian novel Brave New World. In the story, neurotheology is a disciplined study of religious experiences. Huxley (1894-1963), a prescient thinker, was often ahead of the zeitgeist with his ideas. Some of the areas of Huxley’s neurotheology would be considered pseudoscience, but overall he was a vanguard trail-blazing into previously uncharted territory of inquiry through a work of plausible fiction. By this time he had his religious experience with the help of mescaline and had written The Doors of Perception (published in 1953) which described his experience. After The Doors of Perception and both before and after Island, Huxley would experiment with LSD. Huxley used psychedelics in a careful, controlled manner with the objective of empirically studying transcendental states of consciousness. But Huxley was not the first to attempt to study transcendental experiences in a scientific manner, only the first to use the word “neurotheology”.

William James (1842-1910), a prominent psychologist, philosopher and trained physician was intensely interested in the religious experience and the altered states of consciousness afforded by mind-altering substances. He gave a series of lectures which were later collected in the bookThe Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902 [James, 1902]. Insofar as could be done in his time, he attempted to make a rational, scholarly, systematic and scientific study of transcendental experiences. James wrote that “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” [James, 1902].James attempted to “synthesize scientific, psychological and religious points of view…It was entirely in keeping with Jamesian pragmatism that if there were such things as mystical or transcendental states, they should be verifiable through a repeatable experience” [Boon, 2002] We will return to William James more than once in this essay.

Louis Lewin (1850-1929), a German pharmacologist, was among the first to examine and write about mind-altering substances in a scientific manner. [Lewin, 1874, 1894, 1931]The peyote cactus was originally given its scientific name Anhalonium lewenii in honor of Lewis (but was later reclassified as Lophophora williamsii). Lewin thought of visions such as those that Ezekiel had “as hallucinatory experiences, equivocating between his own feelings of religious faith and the notion that ‘visionary states are…generally temporarily limited intermediate and transitory states caused by substances produced in the organism.’ ” [Lewin, 1931]His hypothesis that the human body can produce vision-inducing substances was very ahead of his time. As we will see, it was not until the late 1900’s/early 2000s that Dr. Rick Strassman would attempt to verify that the human brain produces the vision-inducing DMT.

The polymath Cambridge man Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made early attempts at a rational approach transcendental experiences with meditation, ritual, and mind-altering substances in various writings in the early 1900s. He coined the term “Scientific Illuminism” and publishedThe Equinox (running from 1909 to 1998) which was “The Review of Scientific Illuminism”. Scientific Illuminism can be summarized by the motto “the method of science, the aim of religion” which was printed on the masthead of each issue of The Equinox. This early attempt at using the scientific method to study transcendental experiences is a foreshadow of today’s neurotheology. Crowley considered the psychological and neurological correlation of transcendental experiences in various writings, much of which was printed in The Equinox. Crowley kept careful notes of his experiments with meditation, ritual magic, yoga, and such substances as hashish and peyote. Experienced with meditation, he considered the experience of a very strong dose of hashish to be roughly analogous to the mystical experience. In fact, he explicitly wrote that a large dose of hashish could give a weary student of meditation a preview of what sober meditation practices may one day achieve. He wrote, “I have no use for hashish save as a preliminary demonstration that there exists another world attainable – somehow.” [Crowley, 1909]

Crowley came of age in Edwardian England in a younger generation than the American William James and the German Louis Lewin, in a social climate where the use of mind-altering substances to study consciousness was looked at more suspiciously. More so than James, Crowley had to counter the prejudice against mind-altering substances in his culture, though they were all available at pharmacy shoppes. He reminds the reader of a time when the micro-organisms discovered with microscopes were viewed with great suspicion and makes a brilliant analogy; “My dear professor, how can you expect me to believe this nonsense about bacteria? Come, saith he, to the microscope; and behold them… Is it fair observation to use lenses, which admittedly refract light and distort vision? How do I know those specks are not dust?…suppose he retorts, ‘You have deliberately trained yourself to hallucination!’ What answer have I? None that I know of save that microscopy has revolutionized surgery…Then my friend the physiologist remarks: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with drugs and a special mental training, your results will be invalid.’ And I reply: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with lenses and a special training, your results will be invalid.’…So there we are.” [Crowley, 1909] This analogy was picked up decades later by Alan Watts and Timothy Leary.1

What is important here is that Crowley was very clear about maintaining a skeptical attitude about the subjective nature of transcendental experiences and that he insisted that if mind-altering substances were to be used, that they be used by persons with extensive physical and mental training and then only in a careful, methodical, scientific manner. The individual experimenting with these substances were to have background education in the philosophies, psychology, theology and in both Western and Eastern mysticism. Otherwise, the seed would fall on barren ground. 1

In the mid-1900s, vice president of J.P. Morgan and Co. and amateur mycologist, R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) went in search of the almost unheard-of ‘magic mushroom’ in Southern Mexico in a serious of expeditions. He eventually found what he was looking for. On the night of June 29th-30th, 1955, Wasson and photographer Allan Richardson attended the ritual of a Mazatec healer Maria Sabina in which they ate a considerable dose of psilocybe mushrooms. They both had a profound religious experience. Wasson wrote about this experience in an article for LIFE magazine. In his article, Maria Sabina’s name was changed to Eva Mendez and the village location was not given in attempt to shield her from tourism. [Wasson. 1957] Wasson would later write at length about the hypothesis that natural hallucinogens gave rise to religious thinking in human-kind. [Wasson, 1968; Wasson, R. Gordon, et al., 1978; Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck, 1986]2..

We will now return to Huxley. Huxley was very influential to the eminent religious studies scholar Huston Smith (who would go on to augment his religious and philosophical studies with psychedelics), psychologists Dr. Timothy Leary (1920-1996), Dr. Richard Alpert AKA Ram Dass (1931-present), Dr. Richard Metzner (1936-present) and many others. Huxley, Leary, Metzner and John Spiegel (later president of the American Psychiatric Association) and others worked as founding board members for the Harvard Psilocybin Project which operated from 1960 to 1962. Huston smith and Dr. Richard Alpert would work with Huxley, Leary, Metzner and others in various studies with psychedelics. [Alpert, Leary and Metzner, 1964; Dass, 1971. 1974, 1977; Huxley, 1932, 1954, 1962; Lattin, 2010; Leary 1968, 1968, 1973, 1977; White, 1998]

Though some of the Harvard Psilocybin Project made advances in more down-to-earth psychology such as the Concord Prison Experiment which was highly successfully in rehabilitating prison inmates, it also studied the application of psychedelics in religion and spirituality. The Marsh Chapel Experiment (also called the “Good Friday Experiment”) was a double-blind study in which volunteer graduate students of divinity school were given either a placebo or psilocybin during the Good Friday service in Marsh Chapel. This study demonstrated that under the right conditions, psychedelics can give one a profound religious experience that left lasting positive traits. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) followed up with the subjects in 1991 and found that they all considered their session with psilocybin to be a positive turning point in their spiritual and practical lives. 3 In this and many other experiments by Leary, Alpert, Metzner, Smith and many others both within and without the Harvard Psilocybin Project, it was demonstrated that in the proper set and setting, psychedelics were extremely conducive for transcendental/spiritual/mystic/religious experiences and for making lasting positive changes in the individual’s psychological, emotional, spiritual and practical life.

Huston Smith (1919-present) is considered a world authority on comparative religion today. Though he studied religion and spirituality for decades preceding his psychedelic experiences, he never felt he truly understood religious experiences until he had his own on psychedelics. Like Huxley, he was a strong advocate for careful use of psychedelics with the intent on producing religious experiences. He has written some excellent work on the mystical and religious aspects of psychedelics (see hisCleansing the Doors of Perception [Smith, 2000] Leary, Alpert and others would go on to be more loose and egalitarian in their experiments, conducting much experimentation in situations well outside of formal science and academia. Understandably, much criticism has been leveled at them and their camp and their lives took on some wild transformations which are beyond the scope of this essay.

Beside Huxley, these researchers did not seem to use the term “neurotheology” in their studies but it is exactly what they were conducting and this is why they are discussed here. They were conducting “neurotheology” with what technologies and knowledge they had at the time – mainly pharmacology and psychology. They also incorporated “spiritual technologies” such as meditation, yoga, prayer, and continued studies of Eastern mysticism such as Tibetan tantra. In fact, Leary, Alpert and Metzner would use the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which was meant to guide the soul of dying and dead individuals towards the “light at the end of the tunnel”) to guide psychedelic trips, enabling the individual to go through a death-and-rebirth experience while perfectly alive. [Alpert, Leary, Metzner, 1964]

Meanwhile, behind the iron curtain, Dr. Stan Grof (1931-present) was independently studying LSD on hundreds of volunteers in a psychiatric context with no religious expectations. Though mutually unaware of the similar experiments in the United States, he too would see that psychedelics could impart transcendental/religious experiences resulting in life-long positive changes.

On the western side of the cold war, LSD, psilocybin and mescaline would be banned and scheduled as highly illegal substances (LSD in 1968, psilocybin and mescaline in 1970), effectively ending all scientific and medical study of these substances in the West.

Turning back to the 1950s again, Dr. John Lilly (1915-2001) was experimenting with isolation tanks which by themselves can be conducive to transcendental/religious experiences. Dr. Lilly would later find that using LSD in in isolation tanks was an extremely powerful combination. Lilly would later work with Huxley, Alpert and others in this area which was in-effect early neurotheology.

Though it is generally agreed that Huxley was the first to use the word “neurotheology”, it is my own argument that research with psychedelics, isolation tanks, yoga, meditation, prayer, etc. was the beginning of neurotheology despite the inconsequential fact that seemingly no one was using the term outside of Huxely’s fictional Island. [Huxley, 1962]

Beside what has thus far been mentioned, there have been other works here and there viewing the religious experience in a scientific manner. We will turn to some of these in following chapters.


1. Watts wrote “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these three drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear.”

But it is important to note that he also wrote that the “psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.
Furthermore, speaking quite strictly, mystical insight is no more in the chemical itself than biological knowledge is in the microscope.There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these three drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear. Strictly speaking, these drugs do not impart wisdom at all, any more than the microscope alone gives knowledge. They provide the raw materials of wisdom, and are useful to the extent that the individual can integrate what they reveal into the whole pattern of his behavior and the whole system of his knowledge. As an escape, an isolated and dissociated ecstasy, they may have the same sort of value as a rest cure or a good entertainment. But this is like using a giant computer to play tick-tack-toe, and the hours of heightened perception are wasted unless occupied with sustained reflection or meditation upon whatever themes may be suggested.”

2. “The hallucinogenic mushrooms are a natural product presumably accessible to men in many parts of the world, including Europe and Asia. In man’s evolutionary past, as he groped his way out from his lowly past, there must have come a moment in time when he discovered the secret of the hallucinatory mushrooms. Their effect on him, as I see it, could only have been profound, a detonator to new ideas. For the mushrooms revealed to him worlds beyond the horizons known to him, in space and time, even worlds on a different plane of being, a heaven and perhaps a hell. For the credulous primitive mind, the mushrooms must have reinforced mightily the idea of the miraculous. Many emotions are shared by men with the animal kingdom, but awe and reverence and the fear of God are peculiar to men. When we bear in mind the beatific sense of awe and ecstasy and caritas engendered by the divine mushrooms, one is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted in primitive man the very idea of god.” – Wasson. R. Gordon. (1957) “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions”, LIFE Magazine, June 10th, 1957

3. “…the experiment’s fascinating and provocative conclusions strongly support the hypothesis that psychedelic drugs can help facilitate mystical experiences when used by religiously inclined people in a religious setting. The original experiment also supports the hypothesis that those psilocybin subjects who experienced a full or a partial mystical experience would, after six months, report a substantial amount of positive, and virtually no negative, persisting changes in attitude and behavior. This long-term follow-up, conducted twenty-four to twenty seven years after the original experiment, provides further support to the findings of the original experiment. All psilocybin subjects participating in the long-term follow-up, but none of the controls, still considered their original experience to have had genuinely mystical elements and to have made a uniquely valuable contribution to their spiritual lives. The positive changes described by the psilocybin subjects at six months, which in some cases involved basic vocational and value choices and spiritual understandings, had persisted over time and in some cases had deepened…The long-term follow-up interviews cast considerable doubt on the assertion that mystical experiences catalyzed by drugs are in any way inferior to non-drug mystical experiences in both their immediate content and long-term positive effects…” – Doblin, Rick (1991). “Pahnke’s “Good Friday Experiment”: A Long-Term Follow-Up and Methodological Critique”, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Vol. 23, No. 1


Alpert, Leary and Metzner (1964). The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead;

Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Crowley, Aleister (1909) “The Herb Dangerous (Part II): The Psychology of Hashish” (written under the pen name Oliver Haddo), The Equinox Vol. 1 No. 2, Fall 1909, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd.

Dass, Ram (1971). Be Here Now,

Dass, Ram (1977). Grist for the Mill (with Steven Levine)

Dass, Ram (1974) The Only Dance There Is

Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World

Huxley, Aldous (1954) The Doors of Perception

Huxley, Aldous (1962) Island

James, William (1902). The Varieties of the Religious Experience

Lattin, Don (2010). The Harvard Psychedelic Club

Leary, Timothy (1968). The Politics of Ecstasy

Leary, Timothy (1968). High Priest

Leary, Timothy (1973) Neurologic (with Joanna Leary)

Leary, Timothy (1977). Exo-Psychology: A Manual on The Use of the Nervous System According to the Instructions of the Manufacturers

Lewin, Louis. (1874). “Über Morphium-Intoxication” (“On Morphium Intoxication”) in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Praktische Medizin;

Lewin, Louis. (1894). “Über Anhalonium Lewinii und andere Cacteen” (“On Anhalonium lewenii and other cacti”) in Archiv für Experimentelle Pathologie und Pharmakologie;

Lewin, Louis. (1931) Phantastica

Smith, Huston. (2000). Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. Tarcher/Putnam, ISBN 1-58542-03404, Council on Spiritual Practices, ISBN 1-889725-03-X

Wasson. R. Gordon. (1957) “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions”, LIFE Magazine, June 10th, 1957

Wasson, R. Gordon. (1968). Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality,

Wasson, R. Gordon, et al. (1978). The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.

Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck. (1986). Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion

White, Timothy (1998). “Understanding Psychedelic Mysticism: An Interview with Huston Smith”. Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism Number 49, Summer 1998

01 What is Neurotheology?

(This is the first chapter in a treatise. Each chapter will be released separately)

What is Neurotheology?

The term “neurotheology” has been increasingly used in recent years scientific research papers1 as well as in popular media including books, magazines, and web sites. The word “neurotheology” combines the words “neurology” and “theology”. Neurology is the science of the brain. Theology is the study of religion and the views that religions espouse. Though there is no official definition for the word, for the purpose of this essay, we will define “neurotheology” as the study of neurological correlations 2 with spiritual, religious or other metaphysical experiences. In other words, “neurotheology” is the study of what happens in the brain when we have transcendental experiences.3

Keep in mind that it is not assumed that the experience is caused by brain activity. Though there are those who say that the brain causes the experience and those who say that something of a spiritual nature causes the brain activity, it is generally said that transcendental experiences correlate with brain activity, that is that the brain activity and the experience coincide.

The single word “transcendental is meant to convey a host of terms including; spiritual experiences, religious experiences, “higher” states of consciousness, the death experience or near death experience (NDE), apparent encounters with non-physical beings such as “spirits”, “deities”, non-physical and/or inter-dimensional aliens, out of body experiences (OBEs), and astral travel.4

In this paper, the use of such terms as “spirits” or “out of body experiences” does not suggest that there is an objective reality behind the experience. Rather, these terms are meant to indicate subjective experiences as such. When we say that someone had an out of body experience we are not suggesting that they “really” left their body; we are saying that their experience was that of leaving the body.

Some would prefer to say that “neurotheology” is the study of the neurological basis or cause of these experiences while others would prefer to say that “neurotheology” is the study of what occurs in the brain as a result of these experiences. In other words, some prefer to think that these experiences are only physiological events in the brain and others prefer to think that what occurs in the brain is a result of a spiritual event. Again, for the sake of science, it is better to use more neutral and objective terms such as “correlate” and “coincide” because it does not speculate beyond the facts. It is far too early to argue that one is the cause of the other. In the future we may be able to say that one causes the other. But we may never be able to say that one causes the other. As in quantum physics, we may need to think beyond the “either/or” categorization.

Though the term “neurotheology” has been increasingly used in both scientific and popular media, much of what may considered to be part of “neurotheology” does not actually use the term and thus

may evade the notice of writers such as myself. We may see others use the word “neurotheology” invalidly, whether by mistake or to further some agenda. The word “neurotheology” is not official or established like geology, spectrometry, or geometry. The field, if we can call it that, is relatively new and undefined. In this article, I include research that deals with the relationship between neurology and transcendental experiences whether or not the term “neurotheology” is used.

Also, in this work, “neurotheology” often appears in quotes to remind the reader that it is not an established term in science and academia like such terms as neurology or pharmacology. Even Andrew Newberg, M.D. who, as we will see, arguably has done the most to establish “neurotheology” as an actual science has stated, “I have never been comfortable with the term, ‘neurotheology.’ This is, of course, a great problem for someone who is frequently engaged in the field of neurotheology. There are a variety of reasons for my trepidation. However, my greatest concern has always been the lack of clarity about what neurotheology is and what it should try to do as a field.” [Newberg, 2010] To be fair, Dr. Newberg has done tremendous work towards establishing neurotheology as a science.




1. A scientific research paper is a formal description of a scientific study. These are often printed in scientific journals to report new research and are for other scientists and not the general public. These are peer reviewed. In other words, qualified persons who were not involved in the study or the writing of the research paper and decide if it meets the demands of the scientific method and the standards of the journal in question. To meet the standards of the scientific method, the paper must contain enough details for an other researcher to repeat the experiment so that it may be verified or refuted conclusively. These papers are in effect part of the scientific record which began with the first scientific journal in 1665 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in English and Journal des sçavans in French.

Scientific papers are often prefaced with a summary of the paper which is called an abstract. Often these abstracts are available for free whereas the full paper may need to be purchased separately or the full journal issue must be purchased.

In the notes to this article, I have disclosed when only the abstract (and not the full research paper) was available as a reference in writing this article.

2. correlation – 1. a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things 2. the process of establishing a relationship or connection between two or more measures. Oxford Dictionary Online 

3. I have no rigid definition of “transcendental”. I use the word for the sake of brevity and simplicity; to avoid having to write “spiritual/religious/paranormal/hyper-dimensional/near death/out of body” and so-on. But a rough approximation of what I mean by the “transcendent” is that which seems to be beyond the physical – the metaphysical. I would like to emphasize that what may seem to be beyond the physical may turn out to be physical. Therefore, my definition of the transcendent is malleable. If we shine a light into the darkness, that which is lit is no longer darkness, but there would still be darkness beyond that which is lit.

Author Marcus Boon writes “By ‘transcendental,’ I mean that which goes beyond materiality, and materialist explanations – that which has traditionally, but by no means exclusively, been the concerns of religion and spirituality.” Furthermore, Boon writes that scientific and cultural study “without this transcendental impulse is merely another part of the modernist materialist mythology, which places a boundary around nature and culture, and then situates the transcendental outside of it, as though that would be the end of it. If that really were the end of it, there would be no feeling of being trapped, no feeling of emptiness, no craving for an outside…What interests me is to affirm an inclusive, polyvalent movement around the boundaries that modernity has built for itself that would integrate transcendental experiences within the realm of the possible.” [Boon, 2002]

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant defined the transcendent as being beyond possible experience. But this effectively renders it meaningless. All we know is experience. What is beyond experience may or may not exist. If we have no experience of something we can not say it exists, let alone define it. Therefor, I assert that we can have transcendent experiences; that is experiences of what seems to be beyond the physical. Not only does this seem like common sense, but it seems to stand up to scrutiny as well.

4. “The role the human brain plays in any experience cannot be assessed without recourse to the human neurosciences…Hence, neuroscience, specifically, studies of the live human brain, may have something important to contribute to the non-neuroscientific literature on the topic of religious experience. The question of interest from a neuroscientific perspective is” ‘What is going on in the brain when a person reports having a religious experience?’” [Azari, 2006]



Azari, Nina P. (2006). Neuroimaging studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review in Patrick, Ed. Where God and science Meet – How Brain and Evolutionary studies Alter our Understanding of Religion 2006, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT

Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Newberg, Andrew. (2010). Principles of Neurotheology