Study Finds Brain Link To Spirituality

A fascinating study of brain cancer patients concludes that damage to a specific portion of the brain leads to an increased desire for “self-transcendence” or spirituality. Researchers think they may have pinpointed the specific location in the brain that controls attitudes about religion.

The study, published in the Feb. 11 issue of the journal Neuron, involves a personality trait called self-transcendence, which is a somewhat vague measure of spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors. Self-transcendence “reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one’s self as an integral part of the universe as a whole,” the researchers explain. Before and after surgery, the scientists surveyed patients who had brain tumors removed. The surveys generate self-transcendence scores. Selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions of the brain induced a specific increase in self-transcendence, or ST, the surveys showed. “Our symptom-lesion mapping study is the first demonstration of a causative link between brain functioning and ST,” said Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy. “Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness. Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors.”

The researchers make no claim that religious fervor is indicative of brain damage, only that a specific part of the brain seems to control one’s attitudes about spirituality in general. The finding may help develop new strategies for the treatment of personality disorders.