Researchers discover brain circuitry linked to spirituality and religious beliefs

Spirituality centers on the periaqueductal gray brain circuit, according to recent research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. The researchers were surprised to discover that this brain circuit of spirituality is firmly anchored in one of the most preserved and evolved structures of the human brain.

The results suggest that our spiritual beliefs come from the part of our brain that is involved in several other important functions commonly associated with fear, pain, and philanthropy, among others.

A team of researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital interviewed 88 female neurosurgery patients (Catholic or Christian), who were undergoing brain tumor surgery, to learn more about this specific region of the brainstem.

The researchers used lesion network mapping, which allows them to map complex human behavior to specific brain circuits based on the location of brain lesions in patients.

Thirty of the 88 patients who answered questions about spirituality before and after brain tumor surgery said they believed in spirituality less after surgery. Twenty-nine patients said they felt more spiritual after surgery. The remaining 29 patients showed no change.

The researchers also used a second set of databases comprising more than 100 patients (of Catholic or Christian culture) with injuries caused by head trauma during combat during the Vietnam War to validate the above. These participants answered questions about religious beliefs.

Researchers did not have access to information on patient education and impact on spirituality or religiosity. Later, they found and examined many patients who had become hyper-religious as a result of brain damage affecting the negative nodes of the circuit.

Previously, the periaqueductal gray of the brain had been mapped by fear and pain researchers; as well as selfless, humane and philanthropic behavior.

Now, researchers have found that the circuit of spirituality coincides with lesion locations linked to other symptoms of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including Parkinson’s disease.

Although more than 80% of the world’s population considers themselves religious and spiritual, research on the neuroscience of spirituality and religiosity has been sparse and sparse.

The researchers said that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental neurobiological dynamics and deeply embedded in our neuro-tissue.

Previously, research has been done using functional neuroimaging (in which certain areas of the brain light up), in which a person undergoes a brain scan while performing a task. But this type of research has often established an uneven and often inconsistent connection with spirituality.

(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)

Ruth R. Culp