Can we measure the ineffable? The human search for meaning recently took a physical, quantifiable turn as Columbia and Yale University researchers isolated the place in our brains that processes spiritual experiences, writes Ephrat Livni, journalist and lawyer in QZ.
In a new study, published on May 29, 2018 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 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 brain is activated.
The study suggests there is a “universal, cognitive basis for spirituality, as opposed to a cultural grounding for such states.” This new discovery could help improve mental health, according to the researchers. Previous studies have examined the brain activity of Buddhist monks or Catholic nuns. The present research analysed 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 using a broader, modern understanding of spirituality, the researchers explain. 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 relevant transcendent state.
With each of the 27 subjects, 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. During their varied transcendent states, all subjects showed similar activity patterns in the parietal cortex, which processes sensation, spatial orientation, and language, and is thought to influence attention, among other functions.
The effect on the brain is distinct from the effect of other forms of relaxation, according to researchers. “We observed in the spiritual condition, as compared with the neutral-relaxing condition, reduced activity in the left inferior parietal lobule (IPL), a result that suggests the IPL may contribute importantly to perceptual processing and self-other representations during spiritual experiences,” the study explains.
These changes in the brain may help explain why, during spiritual experiences, the barrier between the self and others can be reduced or even eliminated altogether. Although we need some separation between ourselves and everyone else for protection and to manage reality, removing the barrier is also valuable. “Spiritual experiences are robust states that may have profound impacts on people’s lives,” explains Yale psychiatry and neuroscience professor Marc Potenza. “Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders.”
Such experiences involve “pronounced shifts in perception (that) buffer the effects of stress,” the study says. The findings suggest that everyone can access those experiences, and that transcendence isn’t dependent upon religiosity. That makes studying spiritual experiences and figuring out how to use such states for improved mental health easier for scientists.
Beyond mental health, scientists study spirituality because of the universal the human quest for meaning. By cultivating spiritual experiences in addition to strengthening our intellectual abilities, people can lead emotionally richer lives and develop more open minds, scientists say. It is beneficial to evolve an individualised and quantified spirituality. But we also need to remember that everything cannot be quantified. Spirituality has a necessary social component, which much reach out to the other! Spirituality cannot also be reduced to its beneficial or “selfish” aspects!
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)