We often think of spirituality as something wholly outside of science. Though they seem opposed, could there ever be a marriage between the two? Might not science inform spirituality and vice versa? One problem is, there’s a great range of opinions on what exactly spirituality is. It also varies across cultures and has been interpreted differently at different times in history. Generally speaking, a spiritual experience is one that transcends the self and connects the person to the universe in a profound and meaningful way. This is separate from religion, which often includes dogma, religious texts and some sort of institution, according to Philip Perry writing in “Big Think.”
Traditionally, we know very little about the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for a spiritual awakening. In the last few decades, neuroscientists have been seeking out what such experiences look like, from their perspective. One recent study sheds light on this. The results were published in the journal “Cerebral Cortex.” In it, Oxford University professor Lisa Miller and colleagues at Yale and Columbia universities, isolated spirituality-related activity in the parietal cortex of the brain. Normally this is the region responsible for our attention.
As part of the study, researchers recruited 27 young adults from in and around New Haven, Connecticut. They were each asked to recall a time when they had a spiritual experience. It helped build what researchers called their “imagery script.” Volunteers were asked to recall stressful and peaceful experiences. One week later, participants were put into an fMRI machine and made to listen to a recording of a neutral female voice, which recount their experiences back to them.
The neurological pattern exhibited when a spiritual experience was recounted was the same across all volunteers. While more activity was shown in the parietal cortex (i.e. increased attention), less activity occurred in the left inferior parietal lobe (IPL). This region is responsible for self-awareness and awareness of others. Researchers believe this is why “we lose ourselves during a spiritual awakening, in union with the divine. The medial thalamus and caudate, areas which process sensory input and emotions, also displayed reduced activity.”
Psychiatry professor in the Child Study Center and of Neuroscience at Yale University, Marc Potenza, who worked on this study, said, “Spiritual experiences are robust states that may have profound impacts on people’s lives. Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders.” Some limitations are that the volunteer pool was small and that they all came from the same city, writes Perry.
In an earlier study, Miller and colleagues found that a spiritual awakening and depression shared the same pathway, which they called, “two sides of the same coin.” Also, habitual spiritual practices they found seemed to thicken the prefrontal cortex, while depression thinned it. This is the part of the brain responsible for executive function, planning, behaviour modification, and self-explanation.
What is interesting about present research is that researchers were able to identify the neural mechanisms that take place during any spiritual experience, regardless of what background or tradition the person came from. One wonders, if the neurological origins of the spiritual experience are in fact proven, will it have a profound effect on religion or spirituality! If so, what kind?
We may expect that the neurological studies in the next few decades will through surprising results in terms of spiritual depth and religious openness. We need to be open to surprises too! If these research and studies can lead to genuine spiritual awakening, then we can rightly claim neurological sciences are beneficial to humanity for our collective survival. Without genuine spiritual awakening of the masses, our very physical existence is threatened.
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)