A recent brain study conducted among evangelical Christians offers insight into the brain activation patterns associated with religious experiences. The findings, published in the journal Social Neuroscience, suggest that religious worship involves three neural networks — the auditory network, the salience network, and the default mode network.
A religious experience is when a person feels a subjective connection to a deity or supernatural agent. These experiences can be highly meaningful and even life-changing, yet little is known about their neural foundations. Study authors Yoshija Walter and Thomas Koenig noted a particular lack of research concerning large-scale brain activation patterns associated with religion and spirituality.
“I think religious experiences are a fascinating topic,” Walter told PsyPost. “First, it is because they are very important and deep to the ones they occur to. Second, it is because they are attached to strong meaning-making mechanisms. Third, such experiences are distinctly human (animals are not particularly known for them). And fourth, there is not much known about them at the moment.”
To address the gap in the research, Walter and Koenig opted to examine large-scale network activations during religious experiences using electroencephalography (EEG) microstate analyses. An EEG uses electrodes placed on the scalp to measure the electrical activity of the brain. A microstate analysis examines short periods (60 to 120 milliseconds) during which the spatial distribution of electric potentials remains stable, known as microstates. This approach allows examiners to look at changes in global neuronal activity in the brain.
The researchers recruited a study sample of 60 evangelical Christians from churches in Switzerland. A little more than half the sample were women (55%) and the average age of participants was 27. During the experiment, participants’ brain activity was monitored while they engaged in worship and attempted to connect with God. To help induce a religious experience, participants listened to a selection of religious and non-religious music while worshipping. Throughout the worship, the participants used a bar-slider to continuously indicate the extent that they felt connected to God in that moment.
The EEG and microstate data revealed that certain networks of the brain were correlated with participants’ subjective religious experience. For one, a microstate corresponding to the default mode network (DMN) was negatively correlated to religious experience. This finding was in line with the researchers’ hypothesis and is consistent with past evidence that the DMN may be involved in the ego dissolution that can occur with religious experiences.
Secondly, there was evidence that the auditory network was positively correlated with the subjective religious experience. The study authors suggest that participants’ inner dialogue while praying may have activated this network, which is associated with “semantic storage, processing and retrieval.”
Finally, the strongest predictor of religious experience was the downregulation of a microstate corresponding to the salience network. This network is thought to involve the processing of attentional information and may contribute to error monitoring. The authors say this finding suggests that an intense religious experience may “invoke a cognitive shift in attentional control”, which may indicate a shift from introspection to extrospection.
“There is always the chance of a null finding, meaning that there is nothing in particular that we find,” Walter said. “This absolutely fine and only means that there is nothing vastly different in these experiences than in the standard processes of the experiment. However, we did find some interesting correlations. We found an association with the auditory network, the DMN, and with the salience network. Very interesting was that the strongest predictor for the experience was found in the salience network, meaning that there is a strong attentional shift upon the religious experience.”
A limitation of the study was that the experiment was centered around one type of religious experience, although there are numerous ways to experience a religious connection in the real world. Nevertheless, the study was the first to examine the neural basis of religious experiences through large-scale brain activation patterns and microstate analyses, and the findings offer direction for future studies.
“Although we saw some network activations, it would be very interesting to test the data on inverse solutions and trying to figure out if there are some brain locations that correspond to the experience,” Walter remarked. “Studying these experiences is very interesting and I can only motivate other researchers to give them some of their attention.”
The study, “Neural network involvement for religious experiences in worship measured by EEG microstate analysis”, was authored by Yoshija Walter and Thomas Koenig.