Role of Religious and Mystic Experiences In Human Evolution

“The Role of Religious and Mystic Experiences In Human Evolution: A Corollary Hypothesis for Neurotheology” is online.  Here is the abstract:

“The adaptive value of maintaining a portion of our population subject to religious, mystic or spiritual experiences is discussed. An evolutionary mechanism, which may be unique to humans, is posited in which all humans have the neural pathways supporting mystic experiences, but only a small  portion of our population experiences them. Those that do will display signs and personality traits that are associated with temporal lobe electrical lability or sensitivity. These traits motivate behavior that benefits their social group. The cognitive and affective styles displayed by mystics ensure that multiple perspectives are expressed during collective decision‐making processes. The perspectives mystics offer their societies increase the variation within the human “ideational pool”. These perspectives improve their chances for advantageous choices in times of threats or opportunities. Such an adaptation, producing variety in problem‐solving skills, might be the source for the exceptionally wide range of personality types found within our species.”

Spiritually-inclined people think differently than others, and their unique ways of seeing things ensures that there were always a few people in each of our early social groups that expressed a spiritual perspective.  The article also says that there are two primary drivers for spiritual experiences – the left amygdala and the right hippocampus.  The left amygdala is more social, confident and ‘outward’ in its functions, and when it’s exceptionally excitable in a person, they are more likely to see things that way.  When the right hippocampus is more excitable, the person will be more introspective, cautious, and given to solitude.  The personality types that arise from these two structures may not fit into the ‘personality types’ modern psychology recognizes, but the behaviors they facilitate will certainly have played a role in our evolution.

This article seeks to take take neurotheology beyond beyond the brain itself, and extend it into its evolution.  The experiences neurotheology explains are not enough – the evolution of the brain, along with its capacity for spiritual experiences, has a place, too.  Neurotheology is a new field, and this article is an attempt to bring a touch of evolutionary thinking into it.

One Reply to “Role of Religious and Mystic Experiences In Human Evolution”

  1. I read the article and would like to thank you for your great work in pursuing further the comparative analyses between the neuroscience and religion fields of studies. In the lecture titled “God on the Brain,” which explains greatly the context of M. A. Persinger’s experiments with Koren’s helmet I have found finally a person who perceives the neuroscience to be primarily concern with enhancing people’s abilities to make free choices and feel comfortable with their own views, whether they are religious or secular (perhaps the atheist). Your “prophetic” research statement—“The only sacred thing is choice, the only sin is certainty, the only ethics is responsibility, and the only morality is love”—made me recognizes that not all neuroscientists are obsessed with the strict determinism.
    I still have a question. I have a hard time to acknowledge that the poetic and artists expressions, along with mystic or prophetic experiences, correlate with some psychiatric diseases and temporal lobe epileptic seizures. Somehow it is easier to accept the correlation between the seizures and poetic/artists expressions and prophetic experiences than that of the psychiatric dysfunctions. It is stated that the only difference between prophets, poets and psychiatric dysfunctional persons are the negative or positive experiences. I hope I got this right. The negative experiences correlate somewhat to the right amygdala, which enhances fear and anxiety or left hippocampus, which enhances depression, guilt, altered sexual interests, or emotional mania. Finally, my question is: are modern brain monitoring technological devices such as the transcranial stimulation, EEG, or brain imaging, accurate and precise enough to really identify, measure, and image something that can really diagnose with a precision the dysfunction of the right amygdala and left hippocampus? Just wondering…


    There are several techniques for inferring the roles of the various limbic structures. Imaging is not the most important, because of the resolutions involved. Most imaging techniques can’t see small enough, so to speak. Even then, most ongoing activity is inhibitory, so the raw activity in a brain part doesn’t really indicate what it’s doing. The volumes (sizes) of various brain parts are studied, as well as similarities between the phenomena that appear as they respond to direct stimulation and the phenomena seen in epilepsy, psychiatric disorders and spiritual experiences. These are only two of the methods. There are others.

    I do not believe that psychiatric, spiritual or creative episodes are seizural. Rather, seizures can recruit the areas of the brain that support these experiences, making their possible functions explicit. The critical thing is that the areas or pathways that support an experience are more sensitive in a very creative, spiritual, or dysfunctional person. Seizures are only one of the things that can excite them.

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