A Human or Divine Experience?
Posted May 21, 2012
Welcome to the first blog for NeuroSpirit, a forum for discussion for those of us interested in determining how humans experience the divine. Specifically, our interest is in determining what happens in the brain during different spiritual experiences.
The last decade has seen a tremendous growth in the neuroscientific study of spirituality, but we still have no clear explanation for what is happening in the brain during such experiences. Determining the “processes” by which we can feel connected to the divine (however it is conceptualized) may help us better understand the nature of transcendence, and how we can more readily and easily connect with all things beyond the self.
First things first---there are several issues that this blog will NOT discuss nor intend to infer.
• There is no intention to promote one religion over another.
• There is no intention to discuss the negative aspects of religions (I’ll leave that to Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens). There is too much time and energy wasted on comparing different religions. We will focus on the wonderful similarities in the spiritual connection experienced by individuals of all faith traditions (or lack thereof).
• There is no intention to minimize the importance of religious practices.
• There is no intention to suggest that there is one spot in the brain that makes us believe in a god.
• There is no intention to suggest that one must experience a brain injury or a brain disorder in order to have spiritual experiences.
It is also important to make a distinction between spirituality and religion. For the purposes of this blog, religion is conceptualized as a set of formalized behaviors (e.g., prayers, meditations, rituals, etc.) and beliefs (e.g., adherence to a set of creeds necessary for salvation, etc.) associated with distinct faith traditions. In contrast, spirituality is defined as the emotional connection individuals experience with whatever they consider to be divine. This blog will focus on the similar neuropsychological processes that provide the foundation of spiritual experiences reported by all individuals when they connect with whatever they view as sacred or divine. This may be one divinity for the Abrahamic traditions (i.e., God, Allah, Jehovah), multiple divinities for polytheistic traditions (e.g., Vishnu, Brahman, etc.), the universe/Void for mystical traditions (e.g., Buddhism), or nature/the universe for atheists. I hope to stimulate your thoughts regarding what is it about humans that allows us to experience spiritual transcendence. We (i.e., interdisciplinary faculty at the University of Missouri) believe we have identified a neuropsychological process that helps explain how this sense of spiritual connection occurs.
Simply, we argue that spiritual experiences are based in the neuropsychological process of “selflessness.” Psychological research and neuropsychological case studies (i.e., related to persons with brain injuries) clearly indicate that certain parts of our brain are related to defining and focusing on the “self.” The less individuals focus on the self, the more capable they are of focusing on things beyond the self (which is the basic definition of transcendence).
In a nutshell, the right parietal lobe (RPL) of the brain is associated with “self-orientation.” If you look at a picture of yourself, the RPL becomes active. If you injure your right parietal lobe, you have “disorders of the self” such as ignoring the left side of space (in extreme cases individuals deny that their left arm/leg is theirs). The bottom line---if you injure your RPL you will focus less on yourself, or expressed another way, you become more “selfless.”
All of us have experienced a decreased focus on ourselves (or increased selflessness) at times in our lives. For example, have you ever become lost in reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a piece of music and feel the need to orient yourself after it is finished (for me it’s Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, Nugent’s Stranglehold, or Barber’s Adagio for Strings). Have you ever become lost (i.e., less focused on yourself) when watching your child in a play or getting his/her first at-bat in a t-ball league? Have you ever become lost when falling in love for the first time, totally absorbed in your lover? Or, have you ever become lost in prayer or meditation during which you feel a sense of connection with your god or universe, feeling at one with everything? If so, there’s a good chance you minimized your focus on your “self.” Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns have been shown to minimize RPL functioning during meditation and prayer, respectively. Our research, and other research with tumor patients in Italy, suggests that injury to the RPL is also associated with increased reports of transcendence. Taken together, minimizing a focus on the self (through religious practices or injuries/disorders) can be associated with increased spiritual transcendence.
With this background, it is hoped that you will open your mind to new ways of understanding the manner in which we connect with things beyond the self. Spirituality is likely a complex, multi-dimensional experience related to many neuropsychological abilities and expressed according to different contexts and cultures, and hopefully together we can better understand the neuropsychological basis of these experiences.
Stayed tuned, upcoming blogs will discuss our MU spirituality research with persons with brain injury, neuroradiological studies of advanced religious practitioners, different religious texts and their writings regarding “selflessness,” and the manner by which culture influences the way in which these selfless experiences are interpreted (i.e., why do Buddhist monks have mystical experiences and Franciscan nuns have numinous experiences, although their brain activity is the same?).