Two University of Missouri psychologists are proposing “a neurophysiological model of spiritual experience” that explains what is happening inside the brain when people experience feelings of selflessness and transcendence.
The model “suggests that all individuals, regardless of cultural background or religion, experience the same neurophysiological/ neuropsychological functions during spiritual experiences,” according to co-authors Brick Johnstone and Bret A. Glass. It also attempts to explain why these brain activities are interpreted in such different ways by people from different religious traditions and cultures.
Their work, which is detailed in a newly published paper in the journal Zygon, builds on that of researchers such as Dr. Andrew Newberg, who conducted MRI scans of meditating Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns engaging in contemplative prayer. As Miller-McCune reported in October, such activity is associated with increased activity in the frontal lobe, combined with decreased activity in another part of the brain, the parietal lobe.
The Missouri researchers approached the issue from another angle altogether, studying the spiritual experiences of people who suffered traumatic brain injuries. They asked 26 adults who had suffered such injuries about their personal spiritual experiences, the amount of time they devote to spiritual or religious practices and the degree to which they feel close to God or some other spiritual entity.
Their pattern of results “lends general support” to Newberg’s concepts, although it does disagree on some specifics. Unlike Newberg, they found no correlation between frontal lobe activity and spiritual experiences. But like Newberg, they found these feelings of unity and oneness with the universe were associated with decreased activity in the right parietal lobe, a part of the brain associated with visual-spatial perception.
“People with injuries to the right parietal lobe of the brain reported higher levels of spiritual experiences, such as transcendence,” Johnston said.
Their results also support “research suggesting that other aspects of spirituality, such as the cultural experience of religious archetypes, are related to increased left temporal lobe functioning.” They noted that, in their study, the left temporal lobe was the only area of the brain that was “positively correlated with spirituality.”
Based on their own experiments and their analysis of previous studies, Johnston and Glass propose that the left temporal lobe, “with its connections to the limbic system where experiences are provided with emotional valence,” may be the part of the brain where religious archetypes such as god figures, savior or prophet figures and demonic figures are generated.
“Religious archetypes provide a basis for all individuals to define theological, ethical and moral constructs such as good/evil and sacred/secular, and help to provide existential meaning to our lives,” they noted. “These archetypes are subsequently interpreted by individuals on the basis of their specific cultural experiences.”
So if they are right, one part of the brain — under certain conditions — produces feelings of spiritual transcendence, while another part interprets those experiences through the prism of the person’s religious or cultural tradition.
The Missouri psychologists note that more research will be required to confirm and refine this model. But their research provides further evidence that feelings of spiritual transcendence are the product of specific brain activity.
“The ability to connect with things beyond the self … seems to occur for people who minimize right parietal functioning,” Johnstone said. “This can be attained through cultural practices, such as intense meditation or prayer, or because of a brain injury.”