Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a “God spot,” one distinct area of the brain responsible for spirituality. Now, University of Missouri researchers have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon, and multiple areas of the brain are responsible for the many aspects of spiritual experiences.
“We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”
In the most recent study, Johnstone studied 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe, the area of the brain situated a few inches above the right ear. He surveyed participants on characteristics of spirituality, such as how close they felt to a higher power and if they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. He found that the participants with more significant injury to their right parietal lobe showed an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power.
“Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self,” Johnstone said. “Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves.”
Johnstone says the right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation, whereas the left side is associated with how individuals relate to others. Although Johnstone studied people with brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to minimize the functioning of the right side of their brains to increase their spiritual connections during meditation and prayer.
Johnstone makes the comparison to other kinds of disciplines; "It is like playing the piano, the more you train your brain, the more the brain becomes predisposed to piano playing. Practice makes perfect."
While researchers have been focused on finding a 'God spot' in the brain, the new research suggests that it might be better to focus on the neuropsychological questions of self focus vs selfless focus. As Prof. Johnstone explains: "when the brain focuses less on the the self (by decreased activity in the right lobe) it is by definition a moment of self-transcendence and can be understood as being connected to God or Nirvana. It is the sensation of feeling like you are part of a bigger thing."
The research does not make claims about spiritual truths but demonstrates the way that the brain allows for different kinds of spiritual experiences that Christians might name God, Buddhists it could be Nirvana, and for atheists it might be the feeling of being connected to the earth.
On the other end of the spectrum, Professor Johnstone admits that for him it is the music of Led Zeppelin that helps him transcend himself: "When I put on my headphones and listen to "Stairway to Heaven" I just get lost."