Moreover, 80% of the world’s population considers themselves religious or spiritual. However, research on the neurology of spirituality and religion has been limited. Previous research has employed functional neuroimaging, which involves having a brain scan while completing a task to see which regions of the brain light up. However, these correlative studies have provided a skewed and frequently contradictory image of spirituality.
Neural Circuit For Spirituality
A new study headed by Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers uses a novel technique to mapping spirituality and religion, discovering that spiritual acceptance may be localized to a specific brain circuit. This brain circuit is concentrated in the periaqueductal grey (PAG), a brainstem area implicated in a variety of activities including fear training, pain regulation, altruistic behaviors, and unconditional love. The team’s findings have been published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
According to the corresponding author Michael Ferguson, Ph.D., a lead scientist in Brigham’s Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics, the findings show that spirituality and religion are anchored in fundamental, neurobiological processes and are profoundly woven into the neuro-fabric. They were astounded to discover that this brain circuit for spirituality is concentrated in one of the brain’s most evolutionarily conserved regions.
Ferguson and colleagues conducted their research using a technique known as lesion network mapping, which allows researchers to map complex human behaviors to specific brain circuits based on the locations of brain lesions in patients. The researchers used a previously published dataset of 88 neurosurgical patients undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. The sites of the lesions were spread across the brain. Before and after surgery, patients completed a survey that included questions on spiritual acceptance.
The researchers verified their findings using a second dataset of more than 100 individuals with lesions induced by severe head trauma during the Vietnam War. These individuals also filled out questionnaires that asked them about their religious beliefs.
Thirty of the 88 neurosurgery patients had a drop in self-reported spiritual belief before and after neurosurgical brain tumor excision, 29 had an increase, and 29 had no change. The scientists discovered that self-reported spirituality matched to a particular brain circuit centered on the PAG using lesion network mapping. The circuit had both positive and negative nodes, and lesions that disrupted these nodes either reduced or boosted self-reported spiritual beliefs.
The second dataset’s religiosity results corroborated similar conclusions. Furthermore, the researchers discovered many case reports of individuals who became hyper-religious after having brain injuries that damaged the negative nodes of the circuit in a study of the literature.
The spirituality circuit crossed with lesion sites linked with various neurological and mental symptoms. Lesions linked with parkinsonism, for example, crossed positive regions of the circuit, as were lesions associated with reduced spirituality. Lesions related to delusions and alien limb syndrome interacted with negative areas linked to greater spirituality and religion.
The authors point out that the datasets they utilized do not include detailed information about the patient’s background, which might have an impact on spiritual views, and that patients in both datasets were primarily Christian. They would need to duplicate their study across different backgrounds to determine the generalizability of their findings. The team is also interested in disentangling religion and spirituality to better understand the brain circuits that may be causing disparities. Ferguson would also want to investigate clinical and translational applications for the results, such as determining the function of spirituality and compassion in therapeutic therapy.
Medicine and spirituality have only lately been separated from one another. According to Ferguson, there appears to be a perpetual connection between healing and spirituality across cultures and civilizations. He’s curious about how their understanding of brain circuits may help develop scientifically based, clinically translatable questions about how healing and spirituality might co-inform one other.