Spirituality linked to brain damage
Brain activity changes when people undergo spiritual or religious experiences. This isn't surprising, of course, since it's the brain that generates these mental states. Studying just how brain activity changes as people think religious thoughts or experience spiritual or transcendental experiences gives a window into how they are generated in the brain and how they link to other kinds of experiences.
The religious tend to take a dualist approach to these kinds of results, arguing that these changes in brain activity are somehow just a signal, or only part of the story. The actual spiritual experience is generated somewhere else, and the brain activity is just the physical manifestation.
But this argument crumbles if spiritual experiences can be generated by actively changing brain activity. There is some evidence already that this is so. Most famously, Michael Persinger at Laurentian University has found that using electromagnets to stimulate the temporal lobe can generate spiritual feelings (although recently Swedish researchers were not able to duplicate his results).
So what's the connection to brain damage? Well, a new study by Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass at the University of Missouri-Columbia has found that people with evidence of brain damage to their right parietal lobes score higher on a standard measure of spirituality.
What they did was to assess 26 adults with modest traumatic brain injury (they were all walking wounded, able to function in the outside world) to a battery of tests of brain function. What they were expecting to see was that brain damage in the right parietal lobe would increase spirituality, but that damage to the frontal lobe or left temporal lobe would decrease spirituality.
In fact, damage to the frontal lobe did not seem to have any effect, and although there was a slight signal with damage to the left temporal lobe, it wasn't statistically significant.
Interestingly, the effects of damage to the right parietal lobe match with previous studies looking at brain activity in meditating Buddhist monks. When they achieved a transcendental state, activity in their parietal lobes was also quelled.
So it seems that shutting down this part of the brain seems essential for at least some aspects of religious experiences. Why this particular bit of the brain? Well, it's all to do with how we figure out where we are, and how we relate to the world around us. As Johnstone & Glass explain:
From a neuropsychological perspective, the right hemisphere allows for individuals to define themselves in relation to the immediate environment, the here-and-now. The right parietal lobe is generally associated with awareness of the self relative to other objects in space, awareness of the self as perceived by others in social situations, and the ability to critically evaluate one’s own strengths and weaknesses (such as insight). Disorders of the right hemisphere involve a diminished capacity in the ability of the self to function in the immediate environment, including difficulties localizing the body in space...In other words, it's this bit of the brain that figures out where you are in time and space. If it breaks down, you'll experience some pretty freaky sensations - which, if you are so inclined, the rest of your brain will interpret as a religious experience.
Transcendence: the belief that you are connected in ineffable ways to the world around you, that you are not limited by your body but can go beyond it in mysterious ways.
The feeling of transcendence seems to be linked to the right parietal lobe. Brain scans of meditating Buddhist monks show decreased activity in this area, and people with brain damage in the region report feeling more spiritual.
Now a new study has taken a closer look in patients undergoing surgery for brain tumours. Using a sensitive measure of spirituality and accurate mapping of the brain lesion, they were able to tie down the relationships to two specific brain regions, shown in the image.
One of these is located in the right parietal lobe, and the other in the left parietal lobe. These parts of the brain are linked to awareness of where your body (and body parts) is in space.
So these results support the idea the transcendental experiences are caused by a loss of function in these key brain areas. What's interesting was the effect was both immediate (it happened straight after surgery) and prolonged (it was detectable in patients who had previously been operated on for a tumour in the same area).
And feeling more transcendental seemed to turn them on to religion. Patients whose brain tumours were located in this area reported being more religious even before surgery. So if somebody you know suddenly takes up churchgoing, you might want to refer them to your friendly, local neurologist!