Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Non-Self and Spiritual Experience are a Natural Result of Shifting Brain Function
It’s my opinion, based on my experience, that an increase in capacity for non-dogmatic spiritual experience is concomitant with a decrease in self-centredness, and that this is a completely natural process, based on brain functioning, that all humans are capable of.
I believe that what the Buddha taught was a completely natural way to shift brain functioning that increases a capacity for spiritual experience and concomitantly decreases a sense of “self.” Other studies (below) show that mystical experiences are associated with an altered “spatial awareness”. And that spiritual experience triggers the reward centres of the brain just like love, sex, gambling, drugs and music. All three articles were originally published in Science Daily.
Date: April 19, 2012
Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a “God spot,” one distinct area of the brain responsible for spirituality. Now, University of Missouri researchers have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon, and multiple areas of the brain are responsible for the many aspects of spiritual experiences. Based on a previously published study that indicated spiritual transcendence is associated with decreased right parietal lobe functioning, MU researchers replicated their findings. In addition, the researchers determined that other aspects of spiritual functioning are related to increased activity in the frontal lobe.
“We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “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 most recent study, Johnstone studied 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe, the area of the brain situated a few inches above the right ear. He surveyed participants on characteristics of spirituality, such as how close they felt to a higher power and if they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. He found that the participants with more significant injury to their right parietal lobe showed an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power.
“Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self,” Johnstone said. “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 consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves.”
Johnstone says the right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation, whereas the left side is associated with how individuals relate to others. Although Johnstone studied people with brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to minimize the functioning of the right side of their brains to increase their spiritual connections during meditation and prayer.
In addition, Johnstone measured the frequency of participants’ religious practices, such as how often they attended church or listened to religious programs. He measured activity in the frontal lobe and found a correlation between increased activity in this part of the brain and increased participation in religious practices.
“This finding indicates that spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain,” Johnstone said.
Mystical experiences are frequently labeled as indescribable or ineffable. However, new research suggests that when prompted, people who have had a mystical, spiritual or religious experience can describe the event. Researchers surveyed the public and collected hundreds of descriptions of personal, spiritual experiences and then used linguistic analysis to find common underlying features. The authors shared their first findings from this one-of-a-kind database in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
“We decided to survey the public about their spiritual experiences because the profoundly positive feelings of well-being associated with mystical experiences makes them worthy of scientific investigation,” said Andrew Newberg, M.D., senior author and Professor of Emergency Medicine and Radiology in Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson. “By analyzing the language of mystical experiences, our study begins to identify shared features of these experiences.”
Dr. Newberg and his team studied the reports of 777 individuals who have had a spiritual or religious experience. Through computational linguistic analyses, patterns emerged. Individuals who have had mystical experiences, as defined by the Death Transcendence Scale, used more inclusive language like “everything,” “with” and “one-ness.” The same group also used less religious language like “Christ,” “religious,” “holy,” and “hell.”
These findings are consistent with Dr. Newberg’s previous neuroimaging research which found that mystical experiences are associated with alterations in brain areas related to spatial boundaries.
“We are performing ongoing analyses of this incredible database of spiritual experiences,” Dr. Newberg said. “We hope to learn more about the nature of these experiences, how they are perceived and how they affect people. We also plan to tie this information into what we know about the human brain.”
Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The findings will be published Nov. 29 in the journal Social Neuroscience.
“We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent,” says senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson. “In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”
Specifically, the investigators set out to determine which brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings in one group, devout Mormons, by creating an environment that triggered participants to “feel the Spirit.” Identifying this feeling of peace and closeness with God in oneself and others is a critically important part of Mormons’ lives — they make decisions based on these feelings; treat them as confirmation of doctrinal principles; and view them as a primary means of communication with the divine.
During fMRI scans, 19 young-adult church members — including seven females and 12 males — performed four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings. The hour-long exam included six minutes of rest; six minutes of audiovisual control (a video detailing their church’s membership statistics); eight minutes of quotations by Mormon and world religious leaders; eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon; 12 minutes of audiovisual stimuli (church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes, and other religiously evocative content); and another eight minutes of quotations.
During the initial quotations portion of the exam, participants — each a former full-time missionary — were shown a series of quotes, each followed by the question “Are you feeling the spirit?” Participants responded with answers ranging from “not feeling” to “very strongly feeling.”
Researchers collected detailed assessments of the feelings of participants, who, almost universally, reported experiencing the kinds of feelings typical of an intense worship service. They described feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth. Many were in tears by the end of the scan. In one experiment, participants pushed a button when they felt a peak spiritual feeling while watching church-produced stimuli.
“When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,” says lead author Michael Ferguson, who carried out the study as a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah.
Based on fMRI scans, the researchers found that powerful spiritual feelings were reproducibly associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens, a critical brain region for processing reward. Peak activity occurred about 1-3 seconds before participants pushed the button and was replicated in each of the four tasks. As participants were experiencing peak feelings, their hearts beat faster and their breathing deepened.
In addition to the brain’s reward circuits, the researchers found that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a complex brain region that is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgment and moral reasoning. Spiritual feelings also activated brain regions associated with focused attention.
“Religious experience is perhaps the most influential part of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill. Understanding what happens in the brain to contribute to those decisions is really important,” says Anderson, noting that we don’t yet know if believers of other religions would respond the same way. Work by others suggests that the brain responds quite differently to meditative and contemplative practices characteristic of some eastern religions, but so far little is known about the neuroscience of western spiritual practices.
The study is the first initiative of the Religious Brain Project, launched by a group of University of Utah researchers in 2014, which aims to understand how the brain operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs.