There Is A Spiritual Part Of Our Brains-- Religion NOT Required
POSTED ON MAY 30, 2018, BY EPHRAT LIVNI
In a new study, published in Cerebral Cortex (paywall) on May 29, neuroscientists explain how they generated “personally relevant” spiritual experiences in a diverse group of subjects and scanned their brains while these experiences were happening. The results indicate that there is a “neurobiological home” for spirituality. When we feel a sense of connection with something greater than the self—whether transcendence involves communion with God, nature, or humanity—a certain part of the brain appears to activate. The study suggests that there is universal, cognitive basis for spirituality, as opposed to a cultural grounding for such states. This new discovery, researchers say, could help improve mental health treatment down the line. Previous studies have examined the brain activity of Buddhist monks or Catholic nuns, say—people who are already spiritually inclined and familiar with the practice of cultivating transcendent states. But this research analyzed subjects from different backgrounds with varying degrees of religiosity, and totally different individual notions of what constitutes a spiritual experience. “Although studies have linked specific brain measures to aspects of spirituality, none have sought to directly examine spiritual experiences, particularly when using a broader, modern definition of spirituality that may be independent of religiousness,” the study explains. Because there are many types of transcendent moments with varying degrees of meaning to different people, it’s been difficult to test the general effects of spirituality, as opposed to religiosity. So, for this study, the researchers generated individual scripts that put each subject in their own relevant transcendent state. With each of the 27 subjects—all healthy young adults—the researchers created a personal script based on each person’s self-reported previous spiritual experiences. The scientists then scanned brain activity when generating such a state in the subjects. Whether the thing that makes a person feel connected to something greater involves church, trees, or a stadium full of sports fans, it appears to have the same effect on the brain. The effect on the brain is distinct from the effect of other forms of relaxation, according to researchers. “Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders,” explains Yale psychiatry and neuroscience professor Marc Potenza, in a statement about the work. Beyond mental health, scientists study spirituality because the human quest for meaning is timeless and universal. As Tony Jack, director of the Brain, Mind and Consciousness lab at Case Western Reserve University—who was not involved in this study—explains to WKSU, analytical thinking and spiritual, empathic thinking rely on different neural pathways and processes. They don’t happen simultaneously in the brain, but both modes are necessary, like breathing in and breathing out. “You can’t do both at the same time, but you need both to stay healthy and well,” he says.
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