Researchers identify brain circuit for spirituality and religiosity
Researchers have identified the brain circuit for spirituality in humans by using datasets from neurosurgical patients and those with brain lesions. In a new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers said that more than 80% of the global population consider themselves religious and spiritual, but research on the neuroscience of spirituality and religiosity has been sparse.
A team of investigators at Brigham and Women's Hospital used datasets from 88 neurosurgical patients who were undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour. The patients completed a survey that included questions about spiritual acceptance before and after surgery. Out of 88 patients, 30 showed a decrease in self-reported spiritual belief after neurosurgical brain tumour resection, while 29 showed an increase, and the rest showed no change.
The researchers found that brain lesions associated with self-reported spirituality map to a brain circuit centred on the periaqueductal grey, a brainstem region previously implicated in fear conditioning, pain modulation, and altruistic behaviour. They validated their results using a second dataset made up of more than 100 patients with lesions caused by penetrating head trauma from combat during the Vietnam War.
“Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric,” said Michael Ferguson, a principal investigator in Brigham’s Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics. “We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centred in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain.”
Additionally, the researchers also found several case reports of patients who became hyper-religious after experiencing brain lesions that affected the negative nodes of the circuit.
Limitations of the study
The investigators noted that the datasets used by them do not provide rich information about the patient’s upbringing, which can have an influence over spiritual beliefs. They underscored that the study needs to be replicated across people from different religious backgrounds as the patients in both datasets were from predominantly Christian cultures.
“I’m interested in the degree to which our understanding of brain circuits could help craft scientifically grounded, clinically-translatable questions about how healing and spirituality can co-inform each other,” said Ferguson.