Is There a Brain Circuit to Support Spirituality?

( – More than 80% of people worldwide consider themselves spiritual or religious. But studies on the neuroscience of religiosity and spirituality have been sparse. We don’t yet have significant data to determine conclusively the brain circuit that supports spirituality. Correlative studies have only provided spotty, often inconsistent results.

Mapping Religiosity and Spirituality

Brigham and Women’s Hospital took a new approach to mapping religiosity and spirituality and found interesting data. The study found that spiritual acceptance was linked to a specific brain circuit centered in the periaqueductal gray, a brainstem region implicated to condition fear, altruistic behaviors, pain modulation, and unconditional love.

Religiosity and spirituality are rooted in our fundamental and neurobiological dynamics deeply woven into our neuro-fabric. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Ferguson and his colleagues used lesion network mapping to map complex human actions to specific brain circuits.

Study Surveys

The patients who were selected for the study were given a survey about spiritual acceptance to complete before and after surgery. Ferguson and his team validated the results using a second dataset from another group of participants. The second dataset was given questionnaires that asked about religiosity. The questions were fairly simple and straightforward.

The study found that self-reported spirituality was mapped on a specific brain circuit that is centered on the periaqueductal gray (PAG).

Still, the authors of the study noted that the datasets they used didn’t provide rich information about their patient’s upbringing. This could influence their spiritual beliefs significantly. Moreover, patients from both datasets came from predominantly Christian cultures.

Inconclusive Results

Ferguson and his team would have to replicate the study across many backgrounds to ensure the generalizability of their results. The team also aims to untangle spirituality and religiosity to understand other brain circuits that may drive the differences in results. Ferguson also wanted to understand the role that compassion and spirituality could have in clinical treatment.

According to Ferguson, there seems to be some perennial union between spirituality and healing across different cultures and civilizations. It will be interesting to understand which brain circuits answer questions about our responses to spirituality and healing.

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