Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Do Psychedelics and Prayer Activate Similar Brain Regions?

A series of recent studies have defined the potential brain regions involved.

Key points

  • Psychedelics and prayer both produce alterations of perceptions and mood, and both have anxiolytic, analgesic, and antidepressant properties.
  • Following a week-long intense spiritual retreat, there were significant changes in the cingulate, frontal, and temporal cortexes.
  • Ayahuasca, DMT, psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline acutely activated the frontal cortex, temporal cortex, and cingulate gyrus.
  • Similar brain regions facilitated each culture’s communication with their gods via the trance-like state they induced by either prayer or drugs.

Psychedelics and prayer can both produce alterations of perceptions and mood, and both have been shown to have anxiolytic, analgesic, and antidepressant properties. A variety of different studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have defined a group of brain structures and cortical regions that become active, or show evidence of induced neuroplasticity, with either exposure to a variety of psychedelics or intense spiritual experiences.

What Research Says About Prayer

Participants of spiritual retreats often report an enhanced sense of spirituality or improved spiritual well-being that lasts well beyond the period of the retreat. Presumably, such prolonged positive feelings might be associated with changes in functional connectivity between the brain regions that were actively involved in producing these feelings.

A recent study used fMRI to examine the brains of participants prior to and following a week-long intense spiritual retreat. The authors reported significant changes in a few specific brain regions, including the cingulate cortex, superior frontal lobe, superior parietal lobe, and temporal lobe.

An analysis of multiple studies that utilized electroencephalography, fMRI, and PET investigated a wide range of religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, while participants were resting or in prayer. These studies are often fraught with difficulties, such as having no appropriate control group, varying measures of religiosity of each participant, and small sample sizes. However, collectively, these studies suggest that religious or spiritual experiences have distinct specific neurobiological correlates. Once again, similar brain regions were implicated during intense spiritual or religious experiences, including the frontal medial cortex and cingulate cortex.

What Research Says About Psychedelics

Scientists have demonstrated that the majority of psychedelic drugs stimulate serotonin type 2A receptors in the frontal cortex at doses that are typically achieved by most users. While that statement is important, it implies a level of understanding about how these drugs actually work that goes well beyond what is currently understood. Simply stated, the neural basis of the effects of psychedelics is not well understood. (If you would like to learn more about the actions of these drugs, please see the first reference below.)

Due to the high number of serotonin type 2A receptors in the cingulate cortex, a recent study investigated whether a greater cingulate thickness might predict higher subjective ratings in the Five-Dimensional Altered State of Consciousness test. Essentially, after controlling for sex and age, greater volumes of anterior cingulate best predicted the emotional experience of the psychedelic being studied.

An examination of numerous publications utilizing fMRI, PET, or SPECT imaging to study the psychedelics ayahuasca, DMT, psilocybin, LSD, or mescaline discovered that all of these drugs acutely activated the frontal lateral and medial cortex, temporal lobe (which controls memory), and occipital cortex (which controls vision). These studies also reported evidence of long-term anatomical changes in the cingulate cortex.

What This Tells Us About Psychedelics and Prayer

Taken together, the results of these studies suggest that religious or spiritual experiences and psychedelics increase introspection and a generally positive mood by modulating brain activity in a network of cortical structures that includes the frontal medial and temporal lobes, as well as the cingulate gyrus.

These studies do not prove that these experiences are identical; rather, they suggest that the two experiences involve the activation of overlapping neural structures during intense religious experiences and hallucinations. It should come as no surprise, then, that many cultures have developed strict religious and social rules around the use of plants that produce hallucinations. Extracts from the classical entheogenic psychoactive plants, or symbolic representations of them such as the burning of incense, have often played a significant role in religious ceremonies.

Indeed, the near-universal co-occurrence of religion and the use of natural hallucinatory agents may point to the crossroads that connect various hypotheses on why religiosity is so common across diverse primitive societies. Specific plants sometimes gave birth to specific deities. For example, the Poppy Goddess of Crete was represented standing in a trance-like state wearing a crown of poppies. The plant henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) was, in different cultures and at different times, associated with the Norse god Thor, the Celtic god Bel, and the Roman god Jupiter. Cannabis (Cannabis sativa) was associated with the goddess of love known as Freya. Odin—the father of Thor who was worshiped for his control over healing and death—was, quite naturally, allied with opium, the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), and a deadly mushroom (Amanita muscaria). The Egyptians considered their goddess Osiris to be the personification of Psilocybe cubensis.

What I am suggesting is that the appearance of small mystical societies in ancient times that ultimately evolved into more familiar modern-day organized religions was assisted by the universal presence of hallucinogenic plants that were able to alter how the brain functioned and to facilitate each culture’s communication with their gods and goddesses via the trance-like state they induced. Whether the induction of the trance is induced exogenously via a plant extract or endogenously via prayer, similar brain regions were responsible.

References

Wenk GL (2019) Your Brain on Food, Oxford Univ Press.

Wintering A et al (2021) Effect of a One-Week Spiritual Retreat on Brain Functional Connectivity: A Preliminary Study. RELIGIONS, vol 12, Number: 23

Rim JI et al (2019) Current Understanding of Religion, Spirituality, and Their Neurobiological Correlates. HARVARD REVIEW OF PSYCHIATRY, vol 27, p 303.

Dos Santos RG et al (2016) Classical hallucinogens and neuroimaging: A systematic review of human studies Hallucinogens and neuroimaging. NEUROSCIENCE AND BIOBEHAVIORAL REVIEWS, vol 71, p 715, DOI10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.10.026

advertisement