The search for what parts of the brain controls spirituality almost always comes up empty handed. While the brain does not necessarily ‘control’ spirituality, spirituality has an immense impact on the brain – especially the parietal cortex.
Beyond your Ego, your personality and your intellect lies a deeper Self. Spiritual teacher refer to it as your Higher Self.
It is that part of you that has been present since the moment of your birth (or even conception).
At some level we all long to not only make contact with our Higher Self but to be true to it and to live from our true self.
It is why spirituality leads to contentment, inner peace and a sense of authentic joy and a meaningful life on purpose.
Spirituality and The Brain
If you’re a spiritual person, whether in terms of practising organised religion or simply being in tune with yourself through quiet reflection and meditation, I’m sure you’ve probably wondered what goes on in the brain when you have a spiritual experience or feel a spiritual connection to a higher power.
Like you, this question has intrigued people for decades— researchers and laymen alike.
Over the years, numerous studies have tried to pinpoint the brain regions that control spirituality, all with varying results.
Researchers who study spirituality and its significance in people’s lives have conducted studies to find out what happens to the human brain when people engage in religious practices or non-religious activities such as yoga or mindfulness meditation.
A new study, where researchers directly examine spiritual experiences, claims to have pinned what brain activity occurs when we have spiritual experiences, which brain region is activated, and exactly how the human brain processes spiritual experiences.
They call this portion of the brain the “neurobiological home” of spiritual experience— specifically the “parietal cortex” or the “left inferior parietal lobule.”
This article will present the article’s findings, what spirituality means for mental health, and what factor(s) contribute significantly to how we process spiritual experiences.
Past Research On Spiritual Experiences
Because of how inclusive the meaning of spirituality is – from religious practices to the modern definition of spirituality that branches out to include non-religious implementations – determines the exact brain areas responsible for spiritual experiences.
Researchers have continued to study the human brain and what it undergoes during a spiritual experience.
A consensus among researchers of past studies is that multiple brain regions are activated during spiritual experiences and when one establishes a sense of connection with a higher power.
Throughout previous studies, researchers noted similar patterns. They concurred that people who practice spirituality long term are likely to show decreased activation in their right parietal cortex, which is linked to self-awareness.
This essentially means spiritual practices over long periods make us more selfless.
Now, without further preamble, let’s get into what the new study reveals about the brain activity of a spiritual person, the linked specific brain measures that were used to pinpoint the region, and more.
Neural Correlates of Personalized Spiritual Experience: A Study From the Spirituality Mind Body Institute
Prof. Lisa Miller, the editor of the Oxford University Press Handbook of Psychology & Spirituality, and a team of researchers from the Teachers College of Columbia University, and the Yale University School of Medicine, carried out a series of studies to determine what happens in the human brain when spirituality and spiritual practices are a significant part of someone’s life.
How This Study Differs From Previous Studies
Unlike past research that studied the impact of spirituality on specific religious groups, or those that had perfected triggering the mind’s transcendent states, Miller and a team of scientists studied participants from many different religions and varying definitions of spirituality.
“Neurobiological Home” of Spiritual Experiences
The portion responsible for how the brain processes spiritual experiences is called the parietal cortex, or the left inferior parietal lobe.
This is also the region that activates when you gain awareness of yourself or others and tries to focus and direct your attention toward something.
For the research, Miller and colleagues interviewed 27 young adults.
During the interview, participants were questioned about their past stressful, relaxing, and spiritual experiences.
Participants received guiding scripts beforehand with instructions such as, “describe a situation in which [they] felt a strong connection with a higher power or a spiritual presence.”
Because every participant had a different notion of spirituality, the team argued this demonstrated “a broader, modern definition of spirituality that may be independent of religiousness.”
Their findings have been reported in an article now published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
The volunteers then underwent fMRI scans as they listened to recordings based on their answers about their own transcendent spiritual experiences.
The results of the fMRI scans indicated that no matter how much individual spiritual experiences differed, brain activity in the parietal cortex was observed in similar patterns across the board.
Even though participants listened to personalised recordings, their brain areas were similarly stimulated.
The team of scientists stated in the journal Cerebral Cortex, “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.”
Additionally, the research stated that brain regions activated during sensory and emotional processing, i.e., the medial thalamus and caudate, were not as responsive to spiritual stimuli as stress.
Implications for Spiritual Experiences and Mental Health
The discoveries of this research conducted by the Spirituality Mind Body Institute are twofold:
Is Spirituality Solely Religious?
Researchers noted similar patterns in the brain waves of all participants even though definitions of spirituality varied significantly among them. The team concluded that spiritual experience is not directly tied to how religious an individual is.
This isn’t to say religious experience is not spiritual; it most definitely is. However, it is not limited to feeling connected to God. Spiritual experiences can constitute experiences as simple as a walk in nature, spending quality time with loved ones, or even joy when your favourite team wins a match.
Spirituality and Mental Health
Miller and colleagues, thus, realised that the findings could provide insight into the impacts of spiritual experiences on people’s mental health.
“Spiritual experiences are robust states that may profoundly impact people’s lives,” commented Potenza, one of the study’s authors. He continued, “Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders,” he explained.
Spirituality Against Depression
The fMRI scan showed that people who routinely engage in spiritual practice displayed cortical thickening in the prefrontal cortex. Conversely, those who suffered from chronic depression displayed signs of cortical thinning in this exact portion of the brain.
Consequently, the researchers argue that depression and spirituality are two sides of the same coin.
Spirituality Can Improve Mental Health
This study enables experts to correctly determine which brain region lights up when processing spiritual events and experiences, i.e., the parietal cortex. It also uncovered how singularly spiritual experiences are processed in the brain compared to stressful or neutral experiences.
The findings from this experiment seem to confirm the argument by Miller et al. that spiritual experiences can contribute importantly to buffering the effects of stress and treating mental illness.
To put it simply, the brain regions that shrink when a person lives with chronic depression increase in size if the same person adopts a spiritual lifestyle.
Therefore, the key takeaway I’d like you to leave here is that practising any form of spirituality, whether religious or meditative, can help drastically improve the quality of your life.
If you’re already familiar with spirituality and want to learn how to use it to improve your mental health, find more resources here.