Brain Origins of Mystical Experience

Author: Agata Blaszczak Boxe


While lots of people were happily celebrating the start of a new millennium in the early days of 2001, one 30-year-old woman was battling the feelings of sadness and despair. She had recently fallen for a man she felt deeply connected with, but the two went their separate ways because they were both in committed relationships at the time. After they stopped communicating, the woman could not get over her longing for the man — she could not sleep or eat, and she lost a lot of weight. As her emotional state worsened to the point she began feeling suicidal, the woman realized she needed help, so she fell to her knees and started praying to God. "I prayed from the sincerity of my heart and I knew he was there for me," the woman said, writing about her experience on "I have never prayed that way ever not once in my whole life, but pray I did."

Soon, the woman fell into a deep sleep. "All of a sudden, I am going through this tunnel of light," she recalled, adding she also started hearing beautiful music. She was struck by the experience and brought herself out of it. She sat up in her bed, thinking she was losing her mind. "I manage to fall asleep again and once again this beautiful light appears it is so wonderful, then I hear this voice. I do not want to repeat what was said to me because I feel that this message was from God to me," she said. "What gets me the most about all this is that I didn't know anything about mysticism at the time; had I known then what I know now, I would have embraced this light with all my heart and soul."

Experiences such as this one have been reported across cultures and throughout centuries, all sharing similar mystical elements. Some believe them to be encounters with a supernatural world or God, but our growing understanding of the brain and new evidence suggest they, in fact, originate in the brain. Still, the neural underpinnings that bring up such peculiar experiences have been unclear, with scientists suggesting two major hypotheses aimed at explaining them. According to the first one, mystical experiences could be linked with changes in the regions of the brain associated with emotion, abstract semantics and imagery, such as the temporal lobes. The other hypothesis suggests that the experiences could have something to do with decreased activity in the frontal parts brain associated with executive function, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC).

In a new study, published in December in Neuropsychologia, researchers looked at the occurrence of reported mystical experiences and their neural mechanisms in 116 Vietnam veterans with combat-related brain injury and 32 veterans without brain injury. The veterans in the study underwent neuropsychological testing and had their brains examined via CT scans. All the veterans in the study were evaluated at the same time, about 40 to 45 years after they fought in the war.

When the researchers examined the prevalence of mystical experiences among the veterans, they found that 50 of the 116 veterans with brain injury had mystical experiences; 23 had them during the war, right after being injured, and 27 had them after the war was over. In comparison, none of the 32 veterans without brain injury had such experiences during the war, and nine of them had them after the war was over.

Once the researchers looked at the locations of lesions in the brains of the veterans with brain injury, they found that lesions in the frontal and temporal cortices, including the dlPFC and middle/superior temporal cortex, seemed to be linked with the occurrence of reported mysticism.

The dlPFC is one of the areas that control the wide range of executive functions, such as working memory, planning and reasoning. The findings suggest that, through its involvement in executive functions, the dlPFC plays a role in determining whether a person interprets a certain sensorial experience as mystical or whether they provide a rational interpretation of the same experience.

As for the implication of the temporal cortex in the reported occurrence of mystical experiences, it is in line with previous research showing that, for instance, patients with temporal epilepsy, who experience seizures in their temporal lobes, often report mystical experiences. Taken together, the results suggest that the temporal lobe is important for generating an unusual brain activity pattern and the dIPFC has a role in interpreting them as mystical experiences, the researchers said.

Although the new research sheds light on the brain areas that underlie mystical experiences, it does not address the validation of beliefs that may contribute to such experiences. "That is, I can't tell you through personal experience, for example, that God exists," said study co-author Jordan Grafman, the director of Brain Injury Research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "I can tell you about my beliefs, but I can't tell you that I have witnessed anything."

That's someplace researchers can't go, he said, adding that studies like this one can merely tell us what our brains can or can't do, and what may be going on during such experiences. "As a research subject, God has never called my lab, said 'I want to come in,'" Grafman told Braindecoder. "So far, no show, as far as I know," he added.