Project ID NS-MH2024_16


Co Supervisor 1A Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, School of Academic Psychiatry, Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental ScienceWebsite

Co Supervisor 1B Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, School of Neuroscience, Department of NeuroimagingWebsite

Voices of God’: understanding altered self-experience in religion and psychopathology through Social Sciences, Humanities, Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

Many people with psychosis, and psychologically healthy religious practitioners, report experiences of interaction with supernatural agents, such as hearing the voice of God or divinely controlled thought or movement. This project aims to improve understanding of similarities, and differences, in altered self-experience in religious experience and psychopathology. You will join a mixed methods interdisciplinary research group linking KCL, UCL and Stanford University. Phase 1 combines interviews in 40 spiritualist mediums with fMRI acquisition during reported spirit communication. You will apply natural language processing techniques using machine learning to test for semantic similarity between accounts of experiences with normative accounts from co-religionists. In Phase 2 you will interview psychosis individuals with experiences of supernatural agents, and healthy co-religionists (Pentecostal or Evangelical Christians), also acquiring fMRI. A computational measure of ‘degree of cultural normativity’ for reported experiences will be correlated with neurobiological measures. This will help determine shared and distinct brain processes motivating religiously interpreted alterations in self-experience in psychosis and spiritualist mediumship respectively, and what contributes to the distress and disability in mental illness compared to normative religious experience. This is relevant to improving understanding and treatment for people with psychosis.
Year 1: Develop study protocols, obtain ethics, qualitative interviewing training, computational analysis of free text and interviews with spiritualist mediums, fMRI. Review literature. Begin recruitment for Phase 2.
Year 2: Interviews with psychosis and religious groups. Computational analyses. Acquire fMRI. Exploratory analyses with brain measurement data.
Year 3 complete study, analyses, write-up.

Representative Publications

Deeley, Q. (2023). Experiencing and believing in invisible others: anthropological and neurocognitive perspectives. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 13(1), 49-61.

Deeley, Q. (2019). Revelatory experiences: meanings, motives, and causes. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 9(3), 284-291. Walsh, E., Oakley, D. A., Halligan, P. W., Mehta, M. A., & Deeley, Q. (2015). The functional anatomy and connectivity of thought insertion and alien control of movement. Cortex, 64, 380–393.

McCutcheon, R. A., Bloomfield, M. A., Dahoun, T., Mehta, M., & Howes, O. D. (2019). Chronic psychosocial stressors are associated with alterations in salience processing and corticostriatal connectivity. Schizophrenia research, 213, 56-64.

Humpston, C. S., Walsh, E., Oakley, D. A., Mehta, M. A., Bell, V., & Deeley, Q. (2016). The relationship between different types of dissociation and psychosis-like experiences in a non-clinical sample. Consciousness and Cognition, 41, 83-92.

Deeley, Q., Walsh, E., Oakley, D. A., Bell, V., Koppel, C., Mehta, M. A., & Halligan, P. W. (2013). Using hypnotic suggestion to model loss of control and awareness of movements: an exploratory FMRI study. PLoS One, 8(10), e78324.