Man standing on the top of a mountain

Spirituality beyond religion and how brands can stimulate meaningful experiences

Spirituality is often firmly assigned to the domain of religion. However, recent neuroscientific research shows that the same state can be achieved by secular practices too. Tal Dotan Ben-Soussan, a neuroscientist has written a great article on her research on the matter. 

“William James, the father of Western psychology, in 1902 defined spiritual experiences as states of higher consciousness, which are induced by efforts to understand the general principles or structure of the world through one’s inner experience.” Without getting into too much technical details, these experiences can be physically measured in the brain (for example, during meditation). “In short, spirituality, similar to love, has physiological effects in the brain and body, and EEG – recording of brain activity – provides a window on these changes.” 

Not only are we able to measure these effects, we can also train our brains to more ‘aware’. This has a range of potential positive effects like greater empathy, creativity and social effectiveness (an individual’s ability to identify, comprehend, and attain effective social networks that can produce advantageous career and life outcomes).

So how do we experience spirituality outside religion?
One way is through something the author refers to as Quadrato Motor Training (QMT). Practitioners alternate between dynamic movements and static postures, while dividing their attention between their body in the present moment and its location in space. “The study showed that a seven-minute QMT session increased cognitive flexibility by 25% compared with other simpler kinds of movement or verbal training. What’s more, EEG measures showed that the enhanced cognitive flexibility associated with QMT training was also accompanied by increased brain synchronisation of the kind previously related to relaxation, attention, and a flow state. Some might say QMT also fosters spirituality.”

Another way to understand these experiences are through the emotion of ‘awe’. A recent article by Christian Jarrett dives into this concept and the definition he uses to describe awe comes awfully close to the definition of spiritual experiences. “I define it as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that you don’t understand with your current knowledge,”. Just like training our brains to be more aware, awe has a range of positive effects on us, described here. The author goes on to describe several ways to experience awe, originated by Dacher Keltner, leading researcher into the psychology of awe. It should be mentioned that one way is through religion, but there are seven other ways. For example making or listening to music, moving in unison (for example, dancing), looking at visual art or being in awe of nature’s beauty. Other experiences that can instil a feeling of awe are witnessing life and death, witnessing other people’s moral beauty or courage, or considering big (metaphysical) ideas.

What does this mean for your brand?
People have an inherent need for transcendent experiences in their life. This need can manifest itself in many different ways but will not necessarily come in the form of (traditional) religion. The occurrence of spiritual experiences or awe can have many positive effects on people. Even though the area of spirituality might feel like something brands should not want to thread, quite the opposite is true! Stimulating transcendent experiences can be as small and simple as showing people art, music or nature. With these kinds of small and thoughtful gestures brands can offer people the opportunity to experience more meaningful moments in their life.

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