The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience

Human beings appear to have a spiritual brains-brains that are capable of feeling deeply connected to something greater that themselves and that can develop intense beliefs about religion and God. The human brain can engage in practices such as prayer or meditation that result in powerful spiritual experiences that have been described in every tradition and society. Spirituality also appears to have positive, and sometimes negative, effects on people’s mental and physical health. Spiritual practices, beliefs, and phenomena are expressed and experienced in all kinds of ways, but no mater how human beings are spiritual, modern neuroscience can offer new insights into the meaning and nature of spirituality.

This set of 24 lectures examines the fascinating relationship between the human brain and spirituality. Relying on the latest theories and research from neuroscience, psychology, and other behavioral sciences, each lecture in this course addresses provocative questions about human spirituality.

After an introductory lecture that sets the stage for the course, the lectures examine what is known about all aspects of spiritual phenomena, including the study of practices such as prayer or meditation, spiritual development, the differences between atheists and believers, the effects of spirituality and religion on health and well-being, the nature of near-death experiences, the human urge to create myths and rituals, and the biological correlates of specific religious ideas such as revelation. The final lectures examine some of the most fascinating philosophical and theological implications of the field of scholarship that is sometimes referred to as neurotheology-the study of how the brain and spiritual are linked.

In this course, you will learn about many of the latest brain-imaging studies of different spiritual practices that peer into the brain during intense prayer, meditation, or speaking in tongues. You will explore how the effects of these different practices change not only the brain, but the body as well. In addition, you will consider how spiritual and religious beliefs might affect mental health as well as physical health. You will also consider the reverse relationship, in which patients with disorders such as seizures or schizophrenia manifest strong and sometimes bizarre religious experiences. Along the way, you will learn about a wide variety of religious experiences, ranging from basic rituals to the most profound mystical experiences.

A major element of this course is to explore where spiritual beliefs come from. You will consider how the brain develops biologically across the lifespan and how this reflects a person’s spiritual growth and development. In addition, you will try to understand why the brains of some people are intensely religious while the brains of others completely reject the notion of God. You will also explore when religion and spirituality have a positive impact on a person’s life and when such beliefs turn the brain hateful and destructive. You will learn about the impact of neurological and psychological disorders on spiritual beliefs and about how certain drugs that affect specific neurotransmitter systems in the brain lead to amazing spiritual-like experiences. Near-death experiences, rituals, and myths all have the potential to affect the brain, and of course, the brain’s functions are likely involved in helping human beings have such experiences.

In this course, you will learn how thoughts, feelings, and experiences are associated with specific brain areas and how these are related to different aspects of religious and spiritual phenomena. Such phenomena frequently have extremely strong emotions of love or awe, amazing sensory elements such as intense light, and transformative thought processes that change a person’s life. Along the way, you will explore the many research studies that are currently helping people understand the nature of all of these aspects of the spiritual brain.

As this course addresses many mysteries of spiritually, you will learn about how neuroscientists are beginning to study these phenomena and why certain questions about spiritual thoughts, emotions, and behaviors have been particularly difficult to evaluate using scientific methods. You will also learn that many popular and widely held explanations for human spiritual behaviors are far more complicated when you begins to incorporate a scientific perspective as well as a spiritual one.

In this process of discussing the spiritual brain, you will ultimately consider the implications for religion, philosophy, and theology. Thus, you can consider how the spiritual brain addresses some of the big questions about why human beings exist, what the nature of truth is, and how people can know what is really real.

Drawing upon the latest research linking modern neuroscience and spirituality, this course shines a light into the deepest part of human mind and spirit, giving you deep insights into why people believe what they do and revealing the fascinating relationship between the universal spiritual urge and the intricate workings of the human brain.