New research provides new understanding -- and conflicts with previous studies -- on how humans process spiritual feelings.
Forget a so-called single “God spot” in the human brain, say researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
What’s going on regarding spirituality is a much more complex and dynamic process, not isolated to one specific area of the brain.
A recent study also concluded that people can learn to be more spiritual, says George (Brick) Johnstone, the lead researcher and a professor of health psychology at the university.
The paper was published in the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion and confirms some conclusions Johnstone reached in a 2008 study on spiritual experiences associated with selflessness.
Johnstone, during a recent telephone interview, says the new claim doesn’t make any inferences about the existence of God and that he’s heard reaction “from all sides.”
The “God spot” was thought to be the epicenter of the brain, disseminating feelings of spirituality, transcendence and a connection to God or a higher power.
“There are many cognitive parts of the brain. The same with spirituality,” Johnstone says. “Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”
In forming their conclusions, Johnstone and his team 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. The right hemisphere helps humans understand spatial relationships and damage to this lobe results in the loss of imagery and the visualization of spatial relationships.
The right parietal lobe, Johnstone noted, is also associated with perception and definition of “self.” (The left half is associated with relationships to others.)
When there is impairment to the right lobe, the research shows people are more spiritually connected — and can open up to other new experiences, like art and music — and suggests that spiritual experiences are associated with “a decreased focus on the self,” Johnstone says.
“That sounds like transcendence. (It’s also) consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves,” he said.
The more recent study confirmed Johnstone’s 2008 findings proposing spiritual experiences associated with selflessness are related to damage to the right parietal lobe.
Past neuroradiological studies measured blood flow in the brains of Franciscan nuns in prayer and Buddhist mediators. The conclusion was that when the right parietal lobe shuts down, greater spiritual transcendence or oneness with a higher power is achieved.
Johnstone suggests that if a person practices prayer or meditation enough, that part of the brain can be accustomed to decreased activity.
Other studies on the subject have reached different conclusions.
Neurologists at the University of California at San Diego located an area in the temporal lobe of the brain that appears to produce intense feelings of spiritual transcendence combined with a sense of some mystical presence.
Neuroscientist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, managed to reproduce such feelings in otherwise unreligious people by stimulating this area.
Evidence of God at work?
John Castelein, a professor of contemporary theology at The Seminary at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Ill., teaches a course on neurotheology. He subscribes to theories advanced by Rita Carter, author of “The Human Brain Book.”
“Just because we find places in the brain that can be stimulated to produce the kinds of experiences we associate with God and religion, that does not disprove that there is a God,” Castelein says.
“Actually, it supports the belief that, if there is a God who made us, (God) would have made us with organic components that (God) can interact with and with which we can ‘perceive’ (God).”
Castelein says that while he’s unfamiliar with Johnstone’s latest findings, suggesting that humans are hard-wired or biomechanically predestined to believe in God is moving into dangerous territory.
“It certainly presents challenges to Christian thinkers,” he says, “and people in the pew who every Sunday read in the Bible, preach from the pulpits, and sing about the ‘soul.’”
Steven Spearie can be reached at email@example.com or at 217-622-1788.