Religious experiences


  • Saver and Rabin (1997). The Neural Substrates of Religious Experience. Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 9(3), 498-510.
  • Cook C.M., Persinger M.A. (1997). Experimental induction of the 'sensed presence' in normal subjects and an exceptional subject. Percept Mot Skills Oct, 85(2), 683-93.
  • Peter Fenwick (1997). Is the Near-Death Experience Only N-Methyl-D-Aspartate Blocking? Journal of Near-Death Studies, 16, No.1, 43-53.
  • Persinger, M. A. (1993). Paranormal and religious beliefs may be mediated differentially by subcortical and cortical phenomenological processes of the temporal (limbic) lobes. Perceptual and Motor Skills. Feb; 76(1), 247-51.
  • Persinger, Tiller, Koren. (2000). Experimental simulation of a haunt experience and elicitation of paroxysmal electroencephalographic activity by transcerebral complex magnetic fields: induction of a synthetic "ghost"? Percept Mot Skills. Apr, 90(2), 659-74.
  • Stephens, G. Lynn, Graham, George (2000). When Self-consciousness Breaks : Alien Voices and Inserted Thoughts Philosophical Psychopathology - Disorders in Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. NetLibrary
  • Austin, James H. (1998). Zen and the Brain : Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. NetLibrary


See cognitive science of religion.

Many people claim to have religious or supernatural experiences. These experiences are thought to support dualism or the existence of God. Some examples:

  • Communication with gods and spirits - encounter with God, mediums, ouija boards
  • Out of body experiences - the experience of being outside one's physical body, seeing a tunnel of light, meeting dead relatives

Sometimes these experiences are associated with:

  • depersonalization
  • oneness with nature / the world
  • timelessness and spacelessness
  • intense emotions

Explanations from cognitive neuroscience

What can cognitive science tell us about the neural basis of such experiences? Here are some proposed explanations:

Sensed presence

It has been reported that the experience of sensed presence can be induced in the laboratory through the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to the temporal lobe.

  • Electric current generates magnetic field. CRT - 10 mT at 1 ft, Hair dryer on : 20 microT, 10cm from vacuum : 60 microT.
  • Subjects press buttons indicating "sensed presence" experience more often when EM 1 microT applied without knowledge (time-varying complex patterns).
  • Presence might be felt to be behind.
  • Attention to presence induces movement / location.


Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE)

  • What is it? Abnormal electrical activity in the temporal lobe.
  • Epilepsy is a form of recurrent seizures. Known as the "Sacred Disease" because people thought that epileptic seizures were due to demons or gods. Many religious figures are thought to have had temporal lobe epilepsy.


  • What is it like?
    • A typical experience:

@I get the strangest feeling—most of it can't be put into words. The whole world suddenly seems more real at first. It's as though everything becomes crystal clear. Then I feel as if I'm here but not here, kind of like being in a dream. It's as if I've lived through this exact moment many times before. I hear what people say, but they don't make sense. I know not to talk during the episode, since I just say foolish things. Sometimes I think I'm talking but later people tell me that I didn't say anything. The whole thing lasts a minute or two.@

  • From Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot:

@He remembered that during his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up with vigor and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second…in which the fit came upon him. That second, of course, was inexpressible. Next moment something appeared to burst open before him: a wonderful inner light illuminated his soul. This lasted perhaps half a second, yet he distinctly remembered hearing the beginning of a wail, the strange, dreadful wail, which burst from his lips of its own accord, and which no effort of will on his part could suppress. Next moment he was absolutely unconscious; black darkness blotted out everything. He had fallen in an epileptic fit.@

  • Saver and Rabin (1997) suggests that many religious experiences might have to do TLE in the right hemisphere with distrubances to the limbic system. Hemispheric specialization is supposed to explain the often ineffable nature of such experiences.
  • According to Ramachandran, TLE patients have higher galvanic skin response to religious words than normal control subjects. (But there were only two subjects!)
  • It is not clear whether TLE patients are more likely to have religious experiences. Not according to Sensky, Wilson, Petty, Fenwick and Rose (1984). The interictal personality traits of temporal lobe epileptics: Religious belief and its association with reported mystical experiences. In RJ. Porter, R. I-I. Mattson, A. A. Ward, Jr., & M. Dam (Eds.) Advances in epileptology: XVth Epilepsy International Symposium (pp. 545-549). New York: Raven Press.