Can we measure the ineffable? The human search for meaning re??c?ently took a physical, qu?a?n??tifiable turn as Columbia and Yale University resea?rc?h?e?rs 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 genera?ted “personally relevant” sp?iritual experiences in a diverse group of subjects and scanned their brains while these experiences were happ?e?ning. The results indicate a “neurobiological home” for spirituality. When we feel a sense of connection with so?mething greater than the self – whether transcendence inv?olves communion with god, nature, or humanity – a cert?a?in part of brain is activated.
The study suggests th?ere is a “universal, cognitive ba?s?is for spirituality, as opposed to a cultural grounding for su?ch states.” This new disco?v?ery co?uld help improve me?ntal he?alth, according to the rese?a?rchers. Previous studies ha?ve examined the brain act?i?vi?ty of Buddhist monks or Ca?tholic nuns. The prese??nt res?e?arch analysed subje?cts fr?om different backgr?o?u?n?ds with varying degrees of religi?o?sity, and totally different individu?al notions of what co?ns?titutes a spiritual experien?ce.
“Although studies have li?nked specific brain measures to aspects of spirituality, none have sought to directly exami?ne spiritual experiences,” pa?r?ticularly using a broader, modern understanding of sp?irituality, the researchers explain. Because there are ma?ny 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 subje?cts, the researchers created a personal script based on each person’s self-reported previo?us spiritual experien?c?es. The scientists then sca?n?n?ed brain activity when generating su?ch a state in the subjects. Du?r?ing their varied transcende?nt states, all subjects showed similar activity patterns in the parietal cortex, which pr?o?cesses 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 ot?h?er forms of relaxation, acc?o?rding to researchers. “We observed in the spiritual condition, as compared with the ne?utral-relaxing condition, re?duced activity in the left infe?rior parietal lobule (IPL), a result that suggests the IPL may contribute importantly to perceptual processing and self-other representations du??ring spiritual experien?ces,” the study explains.
These changes in the bra?in may help explain why, during spiritual experiences, the barrier between the self and others can be reduced or even eliminated altogether. Al?though we need some sepa?r?ation between ourselves and everyone else for protection and to manage reality, removing the barrier is also valuable. “Spiritual experien?ces are robust states that may have profound impacts on people’s lives,” explains Yale psychiatry and neurosc?i?e?nce professor Marc Pot?e?n?za. “Understanding the ne?u?ral bases of spiritual experiences may help us better unders?t?a?nd their roles in resil?i?e?n?ce and recovery from mental he?alth and addictive disorders.”
Such experiences involve “pronounced shifts in perc?e?ption (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, sc?i?entists study spirituality because of the universal the hu?man 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!)