Whence comes religious experience?

John Shore of Suddenly Christian underwent an overwhelming religious experience one day while in an office-supply closet, presumably alone. That suggests a surge of brain activity in one of the areas that generates religious feeling. And certainly the research has been around for several years:

  • Religious emotions: The middle temporal lobe is linked to emotional aspects of religious experience, such as joy and awe.
  • Sacred images: The lower temporal lobe is involved in the process by which images, such as candles or crosses, facilitate prayer and meditation.
  • Response to religious words: At the juncture of three lobes, this region governs response to language.
  • Cosmic unity: When the parietal lobes quiet down, a person can feel at one with the universe.

–“Your Brain on Religion, May 2001.”

Philip K. Dick underwent a series of spontaneous religious experiences a few years before he had a series of strokes. He found the experiences convincing but realized there was no outward cause for them. I would want to know if perhaps the brain problems started earlier than he realized.

Brain injuries linked to religious experience:

“People with injuries to the right parietal lobe of the brain reported higher levels of spiritual experiences, such as transcendence,” Johnston said….

Based on their own experiments and their analysis of previous studies, Johnston and Glass propose that the left temporal lobe, “with its connections to the limbic system where experiences are provided with emotional valence,” may be the part of the brain where religious archetypes such as god figures, savior or prophet figures and demonic figures are generated….

So if they are right, one part of the brain — under certain conditions — produces feelings of spiritual transcendence, while another part interprets those experiences through the prism of the person’s religious or cultural tradition.

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