Tag Archives: spirituality

Scientists pinpoint brain circuit for spirituality

Credit: Michael Ferguson.

Consciousness can be both a blessing and a curse. During humanity’s first steps on this planet, the world looked radically different. Mysteries were everywhere and the thought of uncertainty was ever present. It’s no wonder then that virtually every culture across different points of time and geographies have independently invented religious frameworks that soothe existential dread.

Even in modern times, more than 80% of people around the world identify themselves as either religious or spiritual. That’s because, for most people at least, spiritual beliefs may be hardwired in our brains.

During previous research, scientists performed brain scans to see which areas of the brain light up while performing a task in spiritual people versus non-spiritual ones. However, the correlative nature of such investigations is inherently limiting.

Poke the brain and you may find god

To get to the bottom of things, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, took a much more radical approach to map spirituality in the brain than other groups have attempted in the past.

Michael Ferguson and colleagues employed a technique known as lesion network mapping by which complex human behaviors can be attributed to specific brain circuits based on the locations of brain lesions in patients. If a certain behavior ceases or, conversely, gets triggered by a certain lesion, then that means the corresponding brain region must be somehow involved.

The team leveraged a dataset involving 88 patients who underwent brain surgery to remove tumors that were distributed throughout the brain. The patients also completed a lengthy survey that included questions pertaining to spiritual acceptance before and after their surgery.

Of the 88 neurosurgical patients, 30 showed a decrease in self-reported spiritual belief before and after neurosurgical brain tumor resection, 29 showed an increase, and 29 showed no change. 

Using the lesion network mapping technique, the researchers associated changes in spiritual beliefs with brain circuits in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a brainstem region that has been implicated in numerous functions, including fear conditioning, pain modulation, altruistic behaviors, and unconditional love.

“Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric,” said Ferguson, a principal investigator in Brigham’s Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics. “We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centered in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain.”

The results from the first dataset were validated with a second dataset involving more than 100 patients with brain lesions caused by head trauma from combat during the Vietnam war. These patients were asked questions like “Do you consider yourself a religious person? Yes or No? after suffering brain damage.

However, the fact that all participants involved in this study were from predominantly Christian cultures and the lack of robust information regarding patient upbringing are both important limitations. The researchers would have to repeat the study across many other backgrounds to validate the link between spirituality and the periaqueductal gray.

For Ferguson these inquiries are not merely philosophical. He believes they may lead to important practical applications, especially in the field of clinical practice.

“Only recently have medicine and spirituality been fractionated from one another. There seems to be this perennial union between healing and spirituality across cultures and civilizations,” said Ferguson. “I’m interested in the degree to which our understanding of brain circuits could help craft scientifically grounded, clinically-translatable questions about how healing and spirituality can co-inform each other.”

The findings appeared in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a "light at the end of the tunnel". Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Private foundation awards after-life research grant worth $5 million

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a "light at the end of the tunnel". Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Many people who have gone through near-death experiences recall a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Such cultural aspects will be studied as part of the research funded by the grant.

Consciousness is considered the prime driver for superior intelligence, and was initially considered the definite barrier which separates man from beast, although other animals, like fellow primates, have been found to exhibit sings of consciousness in the past years. There’s one big question, however, that follows the epiphany of “I am”, and that is “what happens when I no longer am?”. Consciousness breeds spirituality, and eventually religion to comfort man and relieve him from constantly seeking an answer to this question, which might never be answered. Even to this day, after thousands of years and the writings of history’s greatest free thinkers, we know little more than our ancestors who first set out to explain their existence.

[RELATED] The secret to a long life – consciousness

Recently, the Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation — founded by the late Wall Street mutual funds pioneer to help explore spirituality – has awarded a grant worth $5 million, to be centered at UC Riverside, which will support the study of “immortality” and after-life. John Martin Fischer, a philosopher with UC Riverside most famous for his work on free will and determinism, is leading the project. According to the project’s website, the funding, will be split as follows – $1 million of that to host conferences on campus about the afterlife, to support post-doctoral students; while the rest of $4 million will be awarded to various researchers worldwide in the sciences, social sciences, philosophy and theology who will be studying the subject.

“The main questions there are whether it’s technologically plausible or feasible for us, either by biological enhancement such as those described by Ray Kurzweil, or by some combination of biological enhancement and uploading our minds onto computers in the future. I think another more interesting and important question is would we choose to be immortal in that sense, or does death and finitude give life meaning? So that’s kind of the philosophical side of the question of never dying.

But then there’s the religious notion of immortality, which involves an afterlife. So we’ll be looking at a full range of questions about Judeo, Christian and also Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religions’ conceptions of the afterlife to see if they’re theologically and philosophically consistent. We’ll look at near death experiences both in western cultures and throughout the world and really look at what they’re all about and ask the question — do they indicate something about an afterlife or are they kind of just illusions that we’re hardwired into?” said Fischer in an interview for Business Insider.

Of course, such a huge grant has already attacked a wave of criticism. Some of the project’s contestants claim that the foundation backing the Immortality Project is biased, and intends on blurring the line between science and theology.

“If the intent is to do “serious scientific work” then why include theologians? They aren’t a discipline with scientific methods at the base of their field and it’s pretty safe to say they’ll tend to come to this topic with some pretty huge preconceptions and biases, and arguably even conflicts of interest,” reads a comment on the Chronicle discussing the subject.