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.

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