New scientific research has set out to identify how spiritual experiences are processed by the brain and identified where that occurs, concluding neither God nor religion is necessary.
The researchers at Columbia and Yale universities think they have it all figured out – it’s all a material illusion. God, apparently, was not available for comment.
In the study, published in Cerebral Cortex last month, neuroscientists explain how they generated “personally relevant” spiritual experiences in a diverse group of subjects and scanned their brains while these experiences were happening. The results indicate that there is a “neurobiological home” for spirituality.
They suggest that when people a sense of connection with something greater than the self – whether that transcendent experience involves communion with God, nature, or humanity – a certain part of the brain appears to activate. The researchers believe the discovery could help improve mental-health treatment down the line.
“Although studies have linked specific brain measures to aspects of spirituality, none have sought to directly examine spiritual experiences, particularly when using a broader, modern definition of spirituality that may be independent of religiousness,” the study explains. In this study, the researchers generated individual scripts that put each subject in their own relevant transcendent state.
With 27 adult subjects, the researchers created a personal script based on each person’s self-reported previous spiritual experiences. The scientists then scanned for brain activity.
During their varied transcendent states, all subjects showed similar activity patterns in the parietal cortex, which processes sensation, spatial orientation and language.
“Spiritual experiences are robust states that may have profound impacts on people’s lives,” explains Yale psychiatry and neuroscience professor Marc Potenza, in a statement about the work. “Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders.”
These experiences involve “pronounced shifts in perception [that] buffer the effects of stress,” the study says. The findings suggest that those experiences can be accessed by everyone, and that transcendence isn’t dependent upon religiosity. That makes studying spiritual experiences and figuring out how to use such states for improved mental health easier for scientists.
Beyond mental health, scientists study spirituality because the human quest for meaning is timeless and universal. By cultivating spiritual experiences in addition to strengthening our intellectual abilities, people can lead emotionally richer lives and develop more open minds, scientists say.