Until now, research on the neuroscience of spirituality has been limited and somewhat inconclusive. Where in the brain does one’s sense of spirituality originate? And what are its implications on how we think and function? New research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, sheds some new light on these fascinating questions.
Mapping spirituality in the brain.
In order to pinpoint the specific brain circuit responsible for spirituality, researchers used a method called “lesion network mapping.”
They looked at a combination of existing data from 88 patients who underwent neurosurgery for brain tumors, plus new data from 105 patients with brain lesions (areas of tissue that have been damaged). All of the patients completed surveys both before and after surgery, answering questions about whether they self-identified as spiritual.
In the group of 88 neurosurgical patients, some reported less spiritual faith before and after surgery, some more, and some didn’t report a change. Going off of those reports, researchers were able to map lesions in the brain and identify a specific brain circuit associated with spirituality.
That brain circuit was centered in a brainstem region called the periaqueductal grey (PAG), which has positive and negative nodes. When lesions disrupted a positive node, spiritual beliefs seemed to decrease and vice versa. When lesions disrupted a negative node, it increased spiritual belief. The set of data from the other 100-plus patients supported these findings.
As the study authors note, this research suggests “spirituality and religiosity map to a common brain circuit centered on the periaqueductal grey, a brainstem region previously implicated in fear conditioning, pain modulation, and altruistic behavior.”
As study co-author Michael Ferguson, Ph.D., notes in a news release, “Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric,” adding, “We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centered in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain.”
Going forward, the team hopes to continue studying spirituality in the brain and how belief can be affected by brain injuries and legions. Ferguson says he’s curious to explore spiritual mapping more, and specifically “how healing and spirituality can co-inform each other.”