Animals can have spiritual experiences just like humans

Illustration for article titled Animals can have spiritual experiences just like humans

From a neurological perspective, spiritual sensations like out-of-body experiences are fairly easy to understand. They're the result of changes in the brain's arousal system. But animals have the same system as humans...meaning animals could have a spirituality all their own.


This new theory is put forward by University of Kentucky neuroscientist Kevin Nelson. He freely admits there's no obvious way to actually prove animals perceive out-of-body experiences and other mental sensations commonly associated with spiritual phenomena, but they possess all the same structures do in order to experience them

Nelson explains the basics of his theory:

"Since only humans are capable of language that can communicate the richness of spiritual experience, it is unlikely we will ever know with certainty what an animal subjectively experiences. Despite this limitation, it is still reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be the spiritual, then we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences."


Although they probably seem mysterious to anyone who has undergone an out-of-body experience, the underlying mechanics of this phenomenon are fairly well-understood, and actually pretty easy to induce in a controlled environment. Nelson explains that this only bolsters the possibility that animals experience these sensations too:

"In humans, we know that if we disrupt the (brain) region where vision, sense of motion, orientation in the Earth's gravitational field, and knowing the position of our body all come together, then out-of-body experiences can be caused literally by the flip of a switch. There is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat, or primate's brain. In fact, the link between REM and the physiological crises causing near-death experience are most strongly linked in animals, like cats and rats, which we can study in the laboratory.""

These mystical sensations that can produce a sense of wonderment in humans are produced in the limbic system. The limbic system is a relatively primitive part of the brain, and lots of other animals possess the same basic structures. The similarity is strong enough that Nelson suspects animals might even possess a sense of spiritual oneness, feelings that are produced entirely by the brain's perception of wonder and not in reaction to its surroundings.

No less an expert than legendary primate researcher Jane Goodall buys into the theory. She has written on chimpanzees who dance themselves into a trance-like state after heavy rains. This reverie looks suspiciously like those found in religious and other human cultural ceremonies, and is perhaps another indication that mystery and wonder are not the exclusive domain of humans.


[Discovery News]

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Cory Gross

As a Christian, I am 100% fine with this. Maybe even a little validated.

Demonstrating a neurological basis for spiritual experiences does not undermine their legitimacy. In fact, I would EXPECT it to have a neurological underpinning if it WAS legitimate. I would expect my experience of the Divine to reflect in the workings of my brainmeats just like I would expect my experience of love to.

The distinction for me is that I see no reason to think that this neurological basis for spirituality somehow "disproves" God, anymore than a neurological basis for love somehow "disproves" my girlfriend. Our much-vaunted logic and reason are themselves only phenomena of the brain.

Given what I think about the omnipresence of God, it neither surprises nor shocks me that lower animals should share in the experience of Her. Why not? We aren't some kind of special creation 6000 years ago... We evolved and we had to get it from somewhere.

And that's kind of where a bit of validation comes in. If spiritual experience is so ubiquitous, then it puts the lie to this idea that religion is a purely enculturated deception. People like bringing up the idea that religion would not exist on a desert island of people raised without it. No, they would just make up their own to frame the spiritual experiences they were having. Earth is an island in the vastness of space, and apparently Australopithecus already had a glimmer of the idea.