Alexander Moreira-Almeida

Research Stay at RWTH Aachen Guest Professor and Kármán Fellow in the program ERS International, August and September 2013
Information about our Research Alumnus

Professor Alexander Moreira-Almeida is known for his research in Psychiatry and Parapsychology at the University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) School of Medicine, where he is the founder and director of the Research Center in Spirituality and Health. In August and September 2013, he visited the RWTH Aachen University as a Kármán Fellow at the Department of Psychiatry, where he met and worked with Professor Ute Habel. In turn, Ute Habel visited his lab at the University of Juiz de Fora.

The aim of this project was the promotion and establishment of a new cooperation between researchers at the University of Juiz de Fora and RWTH Aachen. Initiated by Dr. Alessandra Ghinato Mainieria, who was a Ph.D. student at Uniklinik Aachen, the scientific collaboration initially focused on the investigation of the relationship between spirituality/religion and health,combining neuroscientific methods (Prof. Habel) with expertise in spiritual experiences (Prof. Dr. Moreira-Almeida).

The following interview with Professor Moreira-Almeida describes the collaboration in more detail.

  Alexander Moreira-Almeida Copyright: Aline Carvalho

What is your main research field all about? What is its importance in a wider context?

I investigate the relationship between spirituality/religiosity and health. One main research line of our group is to perform epidemiological studies investigating the impact of religious involvement on health outcomes. Another line is a multidimensional investigation of spiritual experiences (such as trance, possession, and near death experiences), especially the implications of these experiences for the understanding of mind and its relationship with the brain. In addition, we are also very interested in how to perform the differentiation between a health spiritual experience that resembles psychotic/dissociative disorders from psychotic/dissociative disorders that resemble spiritual experiences. To do this, we use neuroimaging, psychiatric interviews, neuropsychological evaluations, et cetera.

It is important to investigate spirituality/religiosity because it remains important for the large majority of the world’s population, there is consistent evidence it impacts health outcomes and it can help us to advance our understanding of mind and human nature. However, this subject of investigation was neglected during most of 20th century, but it has grown exponentially in the last two decades.

Why did you get interested in a research stay as a Theodore von Kármán Fellow at RWTH Aachen University?

During a conference in Germany, a colleague (Dr. Julio Peres) and I met Dr. Alessandra G. Mainieri, a Brazilian who at that time was completing her PhD in neuroimaging at RWTH Aachen University. We started to discuss the possibility of conducting collaborative neuroimaging studies of spiritual experiences. Then, we developed a collaboration with Dr. Mainieri and with Prof. Dr. Ute Habel, head of the Section of Neuropsychological Gender Studies at the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, RWTH Aachen University Hospital. During this collaborative work, Dr. Mainieri told me about the Theodore von Kármán Fellowship. We applied and we were happy enough to get funds for me to stay as visiting scholar at RWTH and for Professor Habel to stay at my Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) in Brazil.

Could you please summarize your three week stay at RWTH Aachen University – What was your most rewarding experience as a Theodore von Kármán-Fellow?

I had a very busy and productive time at RWTH. In addition to delivering two lectures and two workshops, I met several other researchers, visited Forschungszentrum Jülich (JARA Brain) and the CAVE (Acoustic Virtual Reality for Perception Research), and had several research meetings to discuss collaborative papers in preparation, grant proposals, and data analysis of ongoing collaborative research. The most important part was to strengthen the mutual knowledge, friendship and research partnership with RWTH partners. To be immersed, with my family, in Germany and in German culture was also a very special and rewarding experience.

Which tangible outcomes of your stay are most important? What is planned for the future? (Are you planning a symposium? What collaborative work is planned with the Federal University of Juiz de Fora?)

Lead by Dr. Peres and Prof. Habel, we took part in a neuroimaging study with Brazilian spiritual mediums who came to Aachen and took part in an fMRI study on mediumistic painting in the scanner. We got a grant from Science without Borders (CAPES-Brazil) to support a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship of Dr. Mainieri at UFJF in Brazil to continue our collaborative investigations of spiritual experiences. With Dr. Mainieri’s expertise and support from Prof. Habel and colleagues we are opening a functional neuroimaging laboratory at UFJF.

Is this your first visit to Aachen? What were your impressions?

No, I had visited Aachen previously to start our partnership. I was impressed by the staff and infrastructure for neuroimaging studies at RWTH Aachen University. My family and I also enjoyed the historical aspects of Aachen a lot (my wife is a historian) and, especially, the friendship and kindness of Professor Habel’s family. We were very touched by them.

Is there something you think German academia could learn from academia in Brasil or vice-versa? How do you remember the lectures with students in Aachen?

The group at RWTH-Aachen has a large expertize in neuroimaging and in studying psychotic disorders. Our group in Brazil has an established expertise in studying impacts of religious involvement on health and in the investigation of spiritual experiences. This partnership will allow the exchange of expertise in order to advance interdisciplinary investigations. Aachen students were very curious and participative. For me, it is always very important to present the challenging topics we investigate to culturally and scientifically diverse audiences, since I have the opportunity to be exposed to new insights and perspectives that are very helpful in expanding the understanding of spirituality and of mind.

The subject “cultural influences on spirituality and religiousness” is based on interdisciplinary collaborative work. What do you think of networking in research? What do you think of alumni networks or networking in general?

This is essential. Especially in the fields I’m more focused on (connections between spirituality and health, and the exploration of mind-brain relationship) it is not possible to advance knowledge without the collaborative work of a wide range of academic fields: medicine, psychology, physiology, neuroscience, epidemiology, philosophy, sociology, history, etc. We are very happy to have the opportunity to work with experts from all these fields and the Theodore von Kármán Fellowship at RWTH Aachen University was a valuable resource to foster intercultural and interdisciplinary collaborative work.