Feb 11 2010

Spirituality in the Brain

A recent study looks at the effect of brain surgery to remove tumors on feelings of self-transcendence. The authors found, after looking at 88 patients, that those who had tumors removed from the inferior parietal lobe or the right angular gyrus, but not the frontal lobes, reported increases in thoughts and feelings that might be interpreted as signs of self-transcendence.

This of course raises the thorny issue of the relationship between religious belief and brain function – although the authors are careful to distinguish religion from spirituality. The study used questions to assess the subjects’ feelings of oneness with nature, ability to lose themselves in the moment (feel disconnected from time and space), and belief in a higher power. Those subjects with tumors removed in the areas mentioned experienced immediate increases in these phenomena, while those with tumors removed from other regions of the brain did not.

These kinds of findings are not new. Neuroscientists have previously identified brain regions that are responsible for making us feel as if we are in our bodies and that we are separate from the universe around us. If you disrupt these brain centers that will result in a sensation of floating outside one’s body, or perhaps a sensation of being one with nature, or the universe, or some higher power.

Further, during times of extreme emotional stress, or anxiety attacks, or even seizures (those originating in the temporal lobes) may make someone feel as if they are separated from reality – from time and space.

Most cultures of the world discovered these neural phenomena ages ago, finding ways to induce them with local plant or animal-derived hallucinogens. Such drugs then became part of spiritual rituals and ritualized journeys of self-transcendence.

The piece that seems the least well understand at this time is the profound sense of spirituality that often accompanies these feelings of being outside one’s body or being one with everything. It is easy to understand why these would be extraordinary experiences that might compel someone to reconsider their views of reality (especially if they do not have a neurological explanation at hand). And it seems obvious that feeling one with god or the universe would lead to spiritual feelings about our place in the world. The question is – is there more to it than that? Is there also specific brain anatomy that results specifically in religious feelings, or are such interpretations of these experiences cultural?

This study does not address that question. In fact, it does not really add much to our current understanding of spirituality in the brain, except to add a new method of studying brain changes – tumor removal. The authors acknowledge that the study raises more questions than it answers (always a good sign) – how long do these changes last, for example. Also, their questions were rather crude, and it is not really clear what we can infer from them. A more standardized psychological assessment would be a good follow up.

The authors also plan to do follow up studies using transcranial magnetic stimulation to turn off temporarily and non-invasively those brain regions they identified in this preliminary study. This is an excellent use of TMS, and shows the power of this technique. It will enable much more rapid assessment of the effects of different brain regions on spirituality. There are already many pieces in place to explain the results of this study – it will be interesting to see if follow up yields any new insights into how specific higher-level brain functions lead to spirituality, or if these authors simply found another way to find what we already knew.

These studies also raise an interesting question – are some people born to be more spiritual? To what extent is spirituality a learned cultural attribute, vs a manifestation of brain hardwiring? The fact that there are specific brain regions related to spirituality, and that an individual’s personality in this regard can be changed by surgery, suggests a dominant role for hardwiring.

But even if a tendency for feelings of self-transcendence and spirituality are hardwired, these tendencies would still interact with other personality traits and with culture and environment. So I would not suggest that hardwiring is destiny, and least not for most people. There may be those who are at the extreme ends of human variation in this regard, and their hardwiring does dominate their personality.

I am glad there are neuroscientists not afraid to research these questions.

16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Spirituality in the Brain”

  1. DSimonon 11 Feb 2010 at 10:25 am

    A recent study looks at the effect of brain surgery to remove tumors and feelings of self-transcendence.

    Um, perhaps you mean “the effects of brain surgery to remove tumors on feelings of self-transcendence”. Otherwise, I imagine the following scenario:

    Patient: Doctor, I have this constant feeling of self-transcendence!
    Doctor: We can take care of that! Though, I’m not sure if it’s covered by your health insurance.

  2. Eternally Learningon 11 Feb 2010 at 11:07 am

    From my viewpoint, the fact that we can manipulate someone into having these spiritual feelings that were previously so unexplainable is the most solid evidence out there against the existence of a supernatural creator or supreme being of the universe. The hardest thing to debate someone on is what they have personally felt, and if we can conceivably flip a switch and make them have that feeling again and then flip the switch back and boom! it’s gone… well I think that would make most people think twice about their beliefs, which is really all we should ask for. Thanks for sharing Steve!

  3. CWon 11 Feb 2010 at 11:56 am

    @ EternallyLearning – “the fact that we can manipulate someone into having these spiritual feelings that were previously so unexplainable is the most solid evidence out there against the existence of a supernatural creator or supreme being of the universe”

    Not to get semantical, but I don’t know if this is solid evidence about a supernatural creator’s existence. How would the existence of something have anything to do with our brain chemistry?

    I think I would say it this way: “the fact that we can manipulate someone into having these spiritual feelings…is the most solid evidence of man’s capability to believe in something supernatural, such as a supreme being of the universe, without need of evidence.”

  4. Marshallon 11 Feb 2010 at 2:45 pm

    CW: I agree that Eternally Learning’s argument isn’t a great one. But just to add a bit to the mix: the vast majority of Believers say God exists because “they just know.” Demonstrating that the feeling of “just knowing” is something arbitrarily defined by parameters of our brain wiring–this would essentially kill the “just knowing” argument, which has a rather profound impact on many peoples’ beliefs.

  5. Eternally Learningon 11 Feb 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Well, I have to take exception to your remarks, CW. First off, I did not say that it is solid evidence, I said that it is the most solid evidence. I suppose I could have explained myself a bit better, but the reason I feel that way is because all the facts of how life, the universe, and everything came into being can only ever say that this is how it happened, and beyond that there is still the possibility that some god just chose to do it all that way. The hardest evidence that religious folk have for the existence of a deity is the personal experiences that they and others have that they are at a loss to explain. Feeling transcendent or at one with the universe/god would seem to be among the strongest of feelings in that vein. Is this rock solid evidence that no gods exist? Of course not; as always, when a testable hypothesis is not put forth, you cannot disprove something. The fact of the matter is, these religious feelings were always intangible and not something that could be looked at in a lab, like discovering that chickens still have latent dinosaur DNA. Being able to manipulate these feelings now, would be like turning on a Tesla Coil for a follower of Zeus, essentially stealing their god’s power. It doesn’t show that there is no Zeus, but it does show that this power that only rested with the gods before is possible to control by human hands. Since science is slowly shining light on all the gaps that gods hides in, most of the gods’ powers have been explained over time and those powers have moved to the mainly internal, i.e. things that are intangible. Now that we can dramatically show that they are not intangible and are tied to the physical brain, the gods are running out of places to hide.

  6. Steelmanon 11 Feb 2010 at 5:38 pm

    The authors also plan to do follow up studies using transcranial magnetic stimulation to turn off temporarily and non-invasively those brain regions they identified in this preliminary study.

    I see a Happy Helmet iPhone accessory on the horizon. “Feeling disconnected from others and the world around you? Want to feel one with everything? Mood Modifiers, Inc. has an app for that.”

    I’m off to patent the bus station massage chair version of this device.

  7. Calli Arcaleon 11 Feb 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Eternally Learning — I would say that at best, this finding weakens the argument of those who say they believe in God solely because they feel His presence. That is the most it can do; it cannot disprove God. It can’t even disprove that they felt God; it merely provides a more prosaic explanation for their reported sensations.

    Put it this way: we can stimulate a person’s brain to induce visual hallucinations. From this, could we conclude that light does not exist, merely because we know that the brain can artificially induce the perception of light even when there is no light to see? Of course not. What we get is a profound demonstration of the fact that we cannot entirely trust our perceptions, but not evidence that our perceptions are never right.

    Taking this one step further, if we could somehow determine that religious experiences are *always* fabricated in the brain, even that would not prove the nonexistence of God. It would simply disprove the religious experiences. It’s a good argument for skepticism, but not something which does the impossible and proves a negative.

    An Intelligent Design proponent, if they were sensible (unlikely) and didn’t merely take offense to this research, would argue that the researchers simply found the part of the brain responsible for communicating with God. Me? I favor natural selection and blind chance as the motive force behind evolution. I am wary of claims that someone has actually felt God; I tend to think they are deceiving themselves. I mean, how do they know that’s what God feels like? Plus, I have never felt God myself. While that proves nothing at all, it makes me wonder why God would ignore me. Nevertheless, I do believe in God. I just think He can’t be the sort of a God who meddles a great deal, since we see precious little evidence of that sort of thing.

  8. canadiaon 11 Feb 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I’m with Calli on this: “this finding weakens the argument of those who say they believe in God”

    Notice this does not account for the minority of monotheistic beliefs, but rather ALL spiritual beliefs. There is a physical mechanism for spiritual experience in the brain, one which all religions by definition tap into.

    Saying that the existence of such a mechanism supports the existence of a god or many gods is counter-intuitive. If there is a biological, physical system for inducing spiritual feelings that can be turned on and off, how does it make sense to say it supports the existence of something divine? Isn’t it far more likely that there are survival advantages for a social, foraging species like ourselves to feel connected to the world at large and explain spirituality as a acquired trait? For the majority of human history our survival depended on cooperation between individuals and staying attuned to natural patterns and cycles.

    I realize an argument based on likelihood will probably be lost on spiritual people, but I have to ask the question. If there is some divine presence in the universe, why would its effects be modulated by a part of our brain? Shouldn’t the influence of an omnipotent being be independent of a half-cup of brain matter? Isn’t it far more plausible to assume that, like everything else in the brain and body, such effects stem from biological action?

  9. Eternally Learningon 11 Feb 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Ok. Now I’m starting to get a bit frustrated. Can you please read my response again? Did I at any point characterize this research as a slam dunk? Did I say that this research disproves god? I thought I went out of my way to say that this in no way definitively disproves anything as the thing that we are looking to disprove is not testable. Here are two quotes from my two comments that show my point:

    “Being able to manipulate these feelings now, would be like turning on a Tesla Coil for a follower of Zeus, essentially stealing their god’s power. It doesn’t show that there is no Zeus, but it does show that this power that only rested with the gods before is possible to control by human hands.”

    “…if we can conceivably flip a switch and make them have that feeling again and then flip the switch back and boom! it’s gone… well I think that would make most people think twice about their beliefs, which is really all we should ask for.”

    All I’m trying to say it that this is the most solid evidence that we currently have, mainly because it has “stolen” the current untouchable power of the gods. Like the saying goes, “you can’t reason someone out of what they didn’t reason themselves into,” inducing these kinds of feelings at will could be a way to legitimately use a person’s emotions to guide them out of what their emotions guided them into. That’s all I’m saying. I don’t think that my opinion differs much, if at all, from what you’re saying Calli Arcale, I just don’t think you really looked at what I wrote as I specifically stated multiple times (in a rather short comment I might add) that this does not disprove god.

  10. daedalus2uon 11 Feb 2010 at 10:38 pm

    If these feeliings are brought about by damage to the brain, does that shed light on the mechanism? Is it a more “primitive” (in the sense of a hierarchy) than reason?”

  11. HHCon 12 Feb 2010 at 11:18 am

    Lesions in the two specified areas of the brain create a feeling of self-transcendence. I look at this info as a need on the part of the patient to have a religious experience as well as a medical experience. Would patients who attend religious services after a medical experience, attribute these feelings to a spiritual uplifting from the actual service as opposed to an internal attribution?

  12. Steven Novellaon 12 Feb 2010 at 4:06 pm

    HHC – but then why would that differ by tumor locations. Frontal lobe tumors are a good control – because if this is a non-specific response to getting brain surgery they should show the same results.

    Plus, these are the parts of the brain we would predict for these kinds of effects, so it matches other research.

  13. Roger Bigodon 13 Feb 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I was under the impression that temporal lobe seizures were associated with self-transcendent states of mind. So perhaps the two areas involved in this report actually mediate doubt and atheism.

    There’s a plot device for a Clockwork Orange type movie here.

    But the neurological findings say nothing about the existence of a deity or the validity of faith. There’s a wonderful Bestiary from a medieval Irish monastery edited by E.B. White, in which every feature is interpreted as a lesson from the Creator. In that frame of mind, one could argue that cortical areas for spiritual experience were divinely wired up to allow us to put us in tough with eternal truths and are further evidence of the majesty of nature.

  14. Lenoxuson 14 Feb 2010 at 12:15 pm

    This stuff is always so fascinating. Some might call it the Terrible Act of Breaking the Spell, but I say, bring it on! Knowing how the brain does its thing, including its “spritual” thing, only serves to increase my wonder at the brain, and at the messy human phenomenon of “spirituality”.

    The brain does not produce magic, and it is not driven by magic, it is the magic, metaphorically speaking. So awesome!

    An Ebon Musings post addresses the related issue of temporal lobe epilepsy. Here’s a part of that essay I liked:

    Certainly the fact that these mystical sensations can be artificially reproduced should be troubling to the believer.
    Why would God make it possible for himself to be counterfeited? For God to communicate with us through a specific pathway of the brain leaves open the possibility that other causes can hijack this pathway and delude people with false visions that they genuinely believe to originate with God. (This, of course, is exactly what happens in temporal lobe epilepsy – again, unless one chooses to believe that God genuinely is speaking to these people.) It cannot be considered fair for God to create our brains in such a way as to leave people vulnerable to false revelations indistinguishable from the genuine article and then condemn them for being unable to tell the difference.

    [Also], what if this “God-communication” pathway is damaged? Would such people no longer be able to hear God’s voice at all? And if so, would it be fair for God to condemn them if they ceased to follow his commands simply because they could no longer perceive them?

  15. HHCon 15 Feb 2010 at 2:05 pm

    SN, my point centers around the human attributions, are they internal or external with regard to the patient’s experience? Your response is instructive with regards to frontal lobe surgeries. But a study from Italy is not a definitive one on its own, and requires replication. In a replication, internal versus external attributions could be investigated. After all, hospital chaplains are kept busy and I bet their business could be evaluated in this larger context involving surgical patients.

  16. Ron Krumposon 03 Apr 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Transcendent awareness is not “controlled” by the brain; the brain is its conduit. It is not awareness of “God,” but of that spiritual essence which unites all of existence. “God” is one name for it. That can’t be summarized in a reply to a blog, which is why I wrote my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org ; even that is an outline.

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