Where does spirituality live in the brain?

Have you ever wondered what part of the body sparks our spirituality?

Up until recently, research on the neuroscience of spirituality has been lacking and very unclear. The home for spirituality no longer remains a mystery, as Scientists may have identified its origins.   

What is spirituality?

It is defined as the recognition of a feeling, or sense of belief that there is something greater than oneself; something beyond the human sensory experience that is connected to a cosmic or divine in nature.  

The brain: home to spirituality

The neurobiological home for spirituality is likely to be located in the parietal cortex, an area situated near the center of the brain that is divided into two functions which are responsible for sensation and perception, Scientists say. A recent study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex found this area of the brain to be highly active among those who underwent spiritual experiences. However, these Scientists also mentioned other areas of the brain are likely to be involved in the development of these types of experiences, and that the parietal cortex is a common element that requires further research.

Traditional studies have monitored the brain’s role on spirituality by using functional MRI scans, which show specific areas of the brain light up when patients envision past spiritual experiences. Lead researcher Micheal Ferguson, at the Center for Brain Therapeutics at Brigham questioned the dated technology and stated “why wouldn’t we want to better understand the central role of spirituality in the human experience?”

Over 80% of the world identifies as religious including spirituality, which has such a growing impact on our lives he noted and therefore should be better understood. As a result, Ferguson took a different approach, diving deeper to find the causes, not just the correlations of tracking spirituality.

Ferguson and his team focused on studying patients with brain lesions (tissue damage) in these areas of the brain correlated to spirituality. They tracked the specific locations of each individual's brain lesion out of 88 patients, to see whether there was an increased or decreased feelings of spirituality. His research took brain tumour patients undergoing surgery “spiritual acceptance” pre and post operation.

The results showed one third had a decrease in spirituality, whereas another third had an increase and the final third showed no difference at all. From there his team was able to use this information to link each group of brain lesions to a specific brain circuitry which all showed a common connection point known as periaqueductal gray (PAG). Research has connected PAG to functions like pain relief, altruism and unconditional love, which suggests spirituality is done at a very deep level.          

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
Carl Sagan

The takeaway

We can now say with confidence there is a major link to spirituality and the parietal cortex of the brain, although greater research is needed since it is still unclear whether these experiences are cultivated or correlated to that brain region. What we do know: spirituality is done at such a deep level and is a large part of many people's lives, therefore its origins should be better understood!   

1 comment

This is soooo interesting! Thanks for sharing, I’ve always wondered about these kinds of things.

Emily July 26, 2021

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