Mystical experiences—encounters where people feel they’ve connected to a higher or greater power leading to increased intelligence or insight—have been reported all over the world. Yet, despite the widespread importance of mystical experiences to individuals and entire cultures, little neuroscientific research exists investigating their causal underpinnings. Now, a new study from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) is shedding light on the brain’s role.
Led by Jordan Grafman, PhD and director of brain injury research at RIC, and published this month in the journal Neuropsychologia, this study is the first to use a significant sample size and valid measures of subjects’ cognitive functioning—both critical to better understanding the neurological basis of mysticism. The research finds that suppression of the brain’s inhibitory functions can result in openness to mystical experiences.
Grafman and his team of researchers studied mystical experience among participants of the Vietnam Head Injury Study and compared those who experienced penetrating traumatic brain injury to combat veterans without brain injury or neurological disorder. The team worked with results of cognitive tests taken before and after the war, high-resolution CT brain scan data of the subjects, and interviews that used the Mysticism Scale (M-Scale), a well-established instrument that measures reports of mystical experience. The scale consists of items including feelings of unity and joy, as well as a sense of transcending time and space.
Grafman’s team found that lesions to the frontal and temporal brain regions were linked with greater mystical experiences. By studying people who had very localized injuries, the researchers were able to pinpoint the brain structures involved in such experiences.
“The frontal lobe helps regulate our perceptual experiences,” says Grafman. “When its inhibitory cognitive functions are suppressed, it appears a ‘door of perception’ opens, increasing likelihood of mystical experiences.”
Grafman points out that, while this study sheds light on how brain structures may cause or contribute to mystical experiences, it does not settle the debate about the ultimate reality of those experiences.
“We use complex contexts—our belief system—to filter what’s real,” said Grafman. “Reality is in essence a handshake between our impression of sensory experience and the context in which we place that experience. These findings help us to understand how the brain determines which experiences we perceive as mystical.”
This study builds upon Grafman’s vast portfolio of research, much of which focuses on the prefrontal cortex, believed to play a crucial role in planning, social cognition, reasoning, and reflection.
“The more we understand the brain, the more we can make fundamental advances and translate findings into clinical settings,” he said.
Cristofori, I., Bulbulia, J., Shaver, J., Wilson, M., Krueger, F., and Grafman, J. Neural correlates of Mystical Experience. Neuropsychologia, Jan. 2016.