What if having a spiritual experience is as easy as opening a door? What if neuroscience can help us better understand spiritual architecture as a gateway to God? What if religions knew the power of their architecture?
For millennia, humans have had an irresistible urge to experience a spiritual realm of being. This is why, alongside early buildings they used for shelter, humans have always built structures that fulfilled a higher purpose. The results have been some of the most stunning architecture in the world: the Neolithic Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey, the Pantheon in Rome, and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, plus modern examples, like the Lotus Temple in New Delhi and the Sagrada Família in Barcelona.
Spiritual architecture as a concept encompasses these spaces with a focus on the five senses and an overall sense of being. Whether as a space to worship, sacrifice, contemplate, or simply exist, spiritual architecture provides a physical space for metaphysical purposes.
Beyond its purpose, however, spiritual architecture also has its own unique style. If asked to imagine a sacred building, you might picture soaring cathedrals, ornate mosques, pew-filled temples, or other classic features. Spiritual architecture serves, intentionally or not, as a physical, visual cue for that which cannot be perceived.
Walking through Washington, D.C., you’ll spot two beautiful buildings alike in architectural style and significance: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Washington Union Station.
The Basilica uses a Romanesque-Byzantine architectural style, while Union Station uses the Beaux-Arts style of architecture. Both buildings have some design elements in common—soaring domes, vaulted ceilings, and intricate ornamentation and statuary. However, while these buildings both share similar features, they serve very different purposes.
The Basilica is regularly used for daily and weekly Masses, holy days of obligation, and as a place of prayer, liturgy, and quiet contemplation. Conversely, Union Station connects commuters from Washington to major cities along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, local metro stations, and bus lines.
Two buildings, tantalizingly similar in architecture and yet miles apart (both figuratively and literally) in terms of sacred purpose. It made us wonder:
To investigate these concepts further, Templeton Religion Trust funded a study from Julio Bermudez, Ph.D., a professor at the Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning. This study united researchers in architecture, neurology, cognitive psychology, computer science, and religion, with the intention of developing a deeper, evidence-based understanding of the relationship between architecture and people’s spiritual experiences and understanding.
Bermudez’s hypothesis is that the built environment for meditation or prayer can make it easier for people to induce a spiritual state than it would be through prayer or meditation alone. While he acknowledges that people can induce a spiritual state virtually anywhere they are—and many don’t need anything more to achieve it—his proposition for this study is that sacred architecture more easily facilitates these experiences.
“By opening the door of a temple, a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or any other spiritual space and spending just a few moments there, you can attain spiritual understanding and experience,” Bermudez said. “Just by opening the door and stepping inside.”
Prior to the initial experiment, almost no research had applied new biotechnological advances to the experience of how people interact with architecture. Due to the limitations and immobility of biometric equipment in the past, most studies prior to this point were confined to laboratory settings. However, with the advent of the mobile electroencephalography (EEG) system, it became possible to record biometric and cerebral data in the field.
The study centered on 30 research participants visiting both Union Station and the Basilica on different days. None of the participants had an architectural background, but all were devout Roman Catholics.
Using a mobile EEG machine and the EMPATICA E4 wristband as a biosensor, the study recorded the subtle physiological responses of participants. During the study, each participant followed a predetermined path with five stopping points.
At each stopping point, researchers gathered biometric readings from the medical instruments and asked the participants simple questions about the experience. Afterward, the researchers conducted robust exit questionnaires.
The study tracked both quantitative and qualitative data to measure the experiences of each of the 30 participants:
By relating participant assessments to the quantitative data around their neurological and physical responses, Bermudez and his team hope to lay the foundation for the pursuit of integrating religion and science. This will ultimately help us better understand the role of spirituality in human lives.
“Understanding our spiritual being is a fundamental point of our humanity which each generation explores for new understanding,” Bermudez said. “We are not the only ones trying to add to this knowledge base of humanity, and we humbly acknowledge that.”
Bermudez also stressed that the study’s goal was not to reduce or dismiss the subjective dimension of architecture.
“We are looking at the relationship between these different measures, trying to marry them in the hope that our work can help others to design better,” he added. “Because, let’s face it, not every spiritual space produces the desired effect. So, there is a practical dimension to our work.”
Data analysis from the study is still ongoing. However, preliminary findings suggest that spiritual spaces produce distinct biometric effects compared to secular spaces.
For example, when the subjects visited the Basilica, gamma activity increased across the brain. There was also higher activation of the frontal lobe, indicating intense focus and a disruption of default thinking.
Further projects are underway to duplicate the original study with the addition of mobile eye-tracking and AI-based scene analysis to better understand these initial results.
The details of Bermudez’s findings can be found on the study’s official website. Templeton Religion Trust has also funded related research on the connections between spiritualism and the human experience in our Featured Stories.
To learn more about studies like these and other insights into the relationship between spirituality and other facets of life, sign up for our newsletter below.