Scientists at the University of Missouri have concluded that spirituality is a complex phenomenon determined by multiple areas of the brain. They denied claim that there is one area of the brain called a "God spot," responsible for spirituality.
Previous study had suggested that spiritual transcendence is associated with decreased right-parietal lobe function. The new study replicated the finding but also showed that other aspects of spiritual functioning are related to increased activity in another part of the brain called the frontal lobe.
Huffington Post reports that Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology at the school of Health professions, said: "We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain. 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 study, Johnstone and his colleagues studied 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe, a part of the brain situated a few inches above the right ear.
Participants were surveyed on characteristics of spirituality such as how close they felt they were to a higher power and whether they felt that their lives were part of divine plan. The study authors found that participants with more injury in their right parietal showed an increased feeling of closeness to higher power.
Daily Mail reports Johnstone said:"Neuropsychological researchers have consistently shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one's focus on self. 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 is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves."
According to Johnstone, the right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation and the left side with the way individuals relate to other people. Previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to reduce function of the right side of the brain and increase their spiritual awareness in meditation and prayer at the same time. 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."
Huffington Post reports Johnstone also measured the frequency of participants' religious practices, for instance, how often he attended church or how often he listened to religious programs. He measured activity of the frontal lobe and found correlation between increased activity in this part of the brain and increased participation in religious activity.
The research indicated that there were various spiritual experiences Christians consider closeness to God and which atheists consider awareness of self.
Huffington Post reports that while researchers have 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. 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."
He concluded, however, that this part of the brain does not act in isolation. He said: "This finding indicates that spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain."