By Nicolina Santoro, M.A., MFTI
Humans have contemplated the origins of the soul, and its connection to some sort of divine, omnipotent source for thousands of years. This post is not an advertisement for religion; it’s an exploration of the theme. Religion is a comforting, human way to personalize and categorize our universe. It is also the ghost in the machine, impossible to ascertain, or even quantify. The matter of divine connection as a collective species is the fire that forged worship, mysticism, philosophy, psychology, and eventually transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal Psychology is a school of thought inspired by the pioneering work of American psychologist, William James, one of the forefathers of modern psychology. It is the exploration of the highest potential of man, as defined by the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.
According to James, the religious experience has four key components:
- It is short in duration
- It is hard to describe in words and very emotional
- It leaves the subject feeling as though they have learned something significant
- It happens to the subject usually without conscious manipulation, though the environment has shown to play a role.
Imagine a feeling that at once dissolves the individual into a place of complete connectedness and love. The religious experience is so moving that it can affect an individual for the rest of his or her life. The memory of the experience is so charged, it seems it can be recalled at will for years. A normal physiological occurrence that feels similar, albeit usually shorter, is the human orgasm.
There is nothing modern about this experience or this longing. Ancient cultures all have their unique brand of religious experience. Deep trances, speaking in tongues, dancing frenzies, and altered states of consciousness, in various forms, were common to indigenous people of almost every continent. Their purpose was to bring whole tribes of people into communion with the divine force. As time went on, this unseen force acquired many names, was worshiped in many languages, but the only constant in the matter seemed to be this shared drive to find, and have a communion with this force.
The religious experience has been known to have long-term effects on the subjects who have had them. Modern science has become increasingly interested in studying these effects, which include a new appreciation for life, better moods, inspired creative activity, increased levels of tolerance, patience, and empathy. The subject feels a part of something special, like a divine force took a moment out of infinity to validate them. We all know how good validation feels. Validation is like high performance fuel in the gas tank. The engine of the car is going to run better.
Science has some very interesting conclusions to bear on what is happening to the subject of a religious experience on a neurological level. In The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, Patrick McNamara and collaborators describe how the neurotransmitter dopamine, when produced excessively, has been correlated with increases in religious inclination, hallucinations, and dramatic shifts in the subject’s perception.
Positive correlations between religion and health have also been noted in the research on dopaminergic neurons, and their managerial properties in relation to the autonomic nervous system. A subject in the throes of a religious experience shows high activity in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex of the brain, suggesting that higher order functions are at work, rather than the evolutionary biological reaction that would reside mostly in the limbic system. Some of the noted positive health effects on the subject include reduced anxiety, blood pressure, and pain symptoms. Subjects reported more positive mental well-being, and confidence. The lasting effects of regular spiritual practice are positively correlated to improved mental and physical health.
At Healing Pathways Psychological Services, we work with people of all faiths, backgrounds and cultures. We all have the same goal: to live a happy and purposeful life! Call us if you’d like to meet one of our talented therapists.