Damage to One Brain Region Can Boost "Transcendent" Feelings

By Smriti Rao | February 11, 2010 4:57 pm

brainDoes the human brain have a “God spot”–a particular region that regulates feelings of spirituality and connection to the universe? One year ago, DISCOVER reported on a  scientific study of spiritual people that couldn’t pinpoint one location in the brain as key to controlling religious feelings. But now a new study proposes that there is a link between the physical make-up of the brain and attitudes towards religion and spirituality.

By observing brain cancer patients before and after brain surgery, researchers in Italy have found that damage to the posterior part of the brain, specifically in an area called the parietal cortex, can increase patients’ feelings of “self transcendence,” or feeling at one with the universe. The parietal cortex is the region that is is usually involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation [New Scientist].

The study, led by psychologist Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine in Italy, surveyed 88 brain cancer patients before and after surgery to remove their tumors. They were made to fill out a questionnaire regarding their beliefs, including a section to check their measure of “self-transcendence.” People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena [New Scientist].

The scientists found that before the surgery, patients with parietal cortex tumors reported higher levels of self-transcendence than patients with tumors in the frontal cortex. After the tumors were removed, the parietal cortex patients had even higher self-transcendence scores, while the frontal cortex patients showed no change.

The researchers say these findings, published in the journal Neuron, suggest that selective damage to the parietal cortex caused a specific increase in religiosity and spirituality. Patients who had parietal cortex tumors removed also dealt better with bad news regarding their mortality and health; while the ones with problems in the frontal cortex were more bitter about health problems. Urgesi hypothesized that naturally low activity in parietal regions in people without either brain damage or cancer could predispose them to self-transcendent feelings, and perhaps even to religions that emphasize such experiences such as Buddhism [New Scientist].

Critics point out that the study left a lot of unanswered questions, and note that directly equating spirituality to the self-transcendence scale is somewhat controversial. But other researchers see this study as an important step in understanding the religious brain. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania said, “Sometimes people are quite skeptical about combining spirituality and religion with neuroscience,” he says. “This is one of the few things I’ve read that gives the hope that some of these questions might be tractable” [ScienceNow Daily News].

Related Content:
80beats: God on the Brain: Researchers Probe the Neural Circuitry Behind Religious Beliefs
DISCOVER: The God Experiments showcases five researchers who study religious experiences
DISCOVER: Dalai Lama Speaks Language of Science

Image: Cosimo Urgesi

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • gypsyb

    A “God Spot.” Try the pineal gland. Those who’ve been into meditation and Wilcox all know that this gland is the “God spot” as you put it. The Egyptians used what looked like pine cones in their writings, and many others use the same type of symbol from Buddhas hair, Shiva’s hair, to the staff on the Pope uses (There’s even a pine cone court).

  • AXH

    I’ve always felt god on the upper left side of my noggin

  • fatkid

    Wonder if they’ve found the dejavu center yet? or the ‘where the hell are my keys’ lobe?

  • pine needle

    #1-Pine apples too.

  • Possum

    “The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena”

    OK, just as I have always suspected; those who believe in such nonsense are brain-damaged. Once again science confirms the observations of common sense :)

  • Dave

    Now now. Let’s not attack religious people. We all have our own beliefs and should respect that.

    It doesn’t suprise me, though, that one might feel closer to the universe when they are closer to death. We do go back to the ground.

  • Ivan

    Some beliefs are inherently unworthy of respect. Nobody asks another person to respect child sacrifice, for example. Since there are always going to be people who believe things that others find unworthy of respect, the right approach is to show that you do not and cannot respect their opinion on suchandsuch a topic. That is the honest way to go.

  • Rosita

    This study is consistent with earlier work (2008) by Johnstone and Glass who found that patients with damage to the right superior anterior parietal lobule were significantly more religious than other people, and became so _after_ the damage occurred.

    It is also consistent with still earlier work (Newberg, D’Aquili; Bearegard, Persinger and others) on so-called ecstatic, transcendent “spiritual” states and “religious experiences” brought about by meditation and contemplative prayer. In these states the unifying characteristic was that the subjects had selectively turned off this part of the brain.

    In these abnormal states, the verbal and symbolic interpretation area in the left temporal lobe works overtime to make sense of the strange sensations in the light of previous experience, religious education and culture.

    The experiences seem super real because the missing part of the brain is not only involved in differentiating the “self” from the “not self” but is also part of the mechanism in the right hemisphere which is involved in checking current events with remembered events and with determining what is real and what is not. When this area does not work properly the person is unaware that they are have problems and will come up with all kinds of unconscious rationalizations to explain discrepancies. We see the same kind of thing in the fervantly religious person who is absolutely convinced that they know the will of their version of the divine. It does not bother them that this divinity has a moral code which is identical to their own but different from others who belong to other church groups, denominations or religions. This damning anomaly is not apparent to the victim in the absence of a fully functioning right hemisphere.

    So, yes, there is strong and multiple evidence that at least the most rabid forms of religious experience with their arrogant belief that the believer is infallibly right are the result of a brain which is temporarily or permanently impaired.

  • aikenhead

    anybody familiar with any literature pertaining to association between religiosity and left or right-handedness?

  • http://www.zoomdout.com Sebastian

    Gypsyb said it best. The real mystery is that of the pine cone shaped pineal 0_*

  • warren

    I wonder if psychedelics muffle some of the activity in these areas producing what one would refer to as a transcendental experience.

  • chris

    I think this study actually supports the existence of a spirit world. Could it be that instead of producing our conscienceness, our brains simply focus it, like an antena, into our bodies. When the brain is damaged, our consciousness is freer to experience this other reality more directly. Finally when we die, we lose all of our physical interface with our five senses, so we become intimately entangled with this realm(heaven)

  • puttputt

    I am starting a church were initiates get their parietal cortex ablated with an icepick and hammer.

  • Wilson

    @Chris – I think all this shows is that our brain is set up to provide us with the illusion that we are distinct entities, that there are many parts of the brain that feed into that sensation, and that when those parts are damaged, we don’t preceive ourselves as separate as well. You are just interjecting your own prior beliefs without any evidence.

    There have been other studies about a part of the brain that, when you turn it off, places your perception outside your body, so that your brain compensates by having you “see” yourself from the outside. Perceiving ourselves as distinct beings is very evolutionarily sensible, in that it benefits our genes greatly. If we didn’t have a distinct sense of self, and we were all walking around with the (true) perception that we’re just collections of matter that are aware but not really separate from the rest of the matter in the universe, we probably wouldn’t value our lives as highly as we do. Our genes “want” us to care about ourselves so that they can be propogated, but in order for that to happen, they have to construct our brains to give the illusion of an “us” for us to care about.

  • http://anmtrkirk.com Kirk

    People for thousands of years , through their own means of self-transcendence, have perceived those who think the distinct difference of ourselves to the universe immature*. Many have been aware of such connections to the universe before they knew what (matter, vibrations, chi, energy, or the science behind it really was). Perhaps even our knowledge is incorrect because it is only a value of our senses in the physical world that we can use to describe the idea, which it is not, but a state of mind. But no matter where you hail from or from any period of time. Humankind has expanded exponentially as we were once hunters and gatherers, but now pioneers of discovery.

    This goes beyond religions, geneology, or brain augmentations or the involuntary delusions of an ill-patient. The transcendentalism is not just spiritual garbage, but its what it takes to make us aware, that we are not to value ourselves as better, but as equal to everything else, because that is what we are.

    ***An unknown burst of gamma rays would obliterate us immediately, and then what… well there’s nothing left of us, nothing for us to discover, no one to love, not a single person. the word person doesn’t even exist. But the matter that was obliterated doesn’t disapear and burn into nothingness instead it again recycles itself back into the universe to manifest and new star system, with new variables of creation and death.

    Understanding teaches us compassion. We are the universe, the universe is us. Take care of the energy/matter you perceive with all your senses.I believe true spiritualism has nothing to do with a, gods or God, faith, garbage that religions come with. I don’t recall the Crusades or the dark ages ever using spiritualism enforcer. There’s no anthem to it, no book that lays out rules, there’s no such thing as I Spiritually Bless America.

    Most of us are birds with wings, and the cage is all we know.

  • ashish singh

    i can find what are other fealing and thinking. i want to get rid of it.

  • http://musicdownloadwebsites.webs.com/ Robin Lewis

    Hey I’m a big time fanatic of your blog. Thanks for updating it. :D

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