According to a study at the University of Chicago, about half of all Americans say they’ve had such a [transcendent] experience, which might range from a sense of well-being while watching a sunset to a classic near-death journey. These occurrences are, necessarily, deeply personal and hard to articulate.. “What one person calls a religious experience — which could be intense and life-changing—another might call a simple 10-second prayer,” explains Patrick McNamara, PhD, director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine.
But no matter what they’re called, these events share certain characteristics. Andrew Newberg, MD, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, is one of a new breed of “neurotheologians” studying the intersections among our brains, religion, philosophy, and spirituality. Newberg surveyed about 3,000 people who’d had spiritual experiences and identified a few common elements. Number one was a strong sense of what he calls realness. When you wake up from a dream, he explains, you know it wasn’t real, no matter how vivid it felt. Not so with transcendent experiences, which feel authentic not only at the time but years later.