How the brain escapes the self

Connor Wood

Religious experiences get described in a lot of ways. People gushingly talk about a profound sense of oneness, about incredible bliss, joy, and ineffable meaning. One thing you almost never hear, however, is that a religious experience made someone more greedy and selfish. No one ever says, “Hey, you know what? I just experienced ultimate spiritual bliss, and boy, did it ever make me focus neurotically on my own struggles, financial problems, and dating insecurities!” Why this incompatibility between spirituality and self-absorption? A team of researchers from the University of Missouri thinks that the reason might be found in the brain, where reduced function in the region associated with self-awareness is correlated with greater spirituality.

The team, led by Brick Johnstone and Angela Bodling of the University of Missouri’s Department of Health Psychology, was familiar with previous research showing that suppression of the right parietal cortex appeared to inspire religious experiences. The right parietal cortex (or right parietal lobe) is a part of the brain found near the rear and top of your skull. It’s responsible for orienting the body in space and time, largely by keeping tabs on spatial and temporal relationships with nearby reference points. Neuroscientists such as Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania have previously found that long-term meditators and religious experts have reduced function in the parietal lobe during meditation or other religious exercise, leading many scholars to suspect that meditation dampens one’s sense of a separate self by reducing the ability of the brain to locate the body in relation to the surrounding world.

But much of this previous research was exploratory rather than hypothesis-driven in nature. What’s more, nearly all previous studies suffered from unsophisticated, one-dimensional measurements of spirituality or religiousness. Johnstone, Bodling, and their colleagues aimed to correct these shortcomings by articulating concrete, theory-driven hypotheses at the outset of their study, and by utilizing several different measures of spirituality. These measures assumed that spirituality is a multidimensional construct – that is, just as a person might be fiscally conservative but socially liberal, someone could measure as high in one form of spirituality, such as a sense of meaning in life, but low in another, such as frequency of private prayer. This more responsive and multifaceted way of thinking about spirituality promised to deliver a more intricate picture of the relationship between brain functioning and spiritual experience.

The researchers asked 20 different traumatic brain injury patients to perform a series of cognitive functioning tests that tell clinicians which regions of the brain are not functioning properly. For instance, a test of right parietal functioning asks subjects to match the relative angles of a series of lines (see the figure at right). Patients with high-functioning right parietal cortices can accurately indicate which angles match with the lines, but those with damaged parietal lobes have difficulties assessing spatial relationships and perform poorly on the task.

Unlike many neuroscientists who study religious experience, then, the University of Missouri researchers relied on clinical and behavioral data rather than direct brain imaging. This was intentional – while MRIs and CAT scans can tell you which parts of the brain are active at which times, tests that measure cognitive abilities can give a more reliable picture of the brain’s actual functioning. This behavioral data reduces uncertainty when it comes to pinning specific spiritual phenomena to underlying neural processes.

The researchers hypothesized that brain-injury patients who performed poorly on the tests of right parietal functioning would also report higher levels of different types of spirituality. They also predicted that strong performance on tests of frontal lobe functioning, which require subjects to trace a series of numbers and letters in a maze-like patterns, would be positively associated with spirituality. Tasks that tested functioning in other areas of the brain, such as the right and left temporal lobes, were not expected to be associated with spirituality one way or the other.

While the subject pool was small, the results more than supported the researchers’ hypotheses. Poor performance on right-parietal tasks was positively and significantly associated with spirituality as defined by the 5-dimensional “Inspirit” measure of spirituality, while strong frontal cortex functioning positively predicted private religious practice, such as personal prayer or meditation. Tests of brain function in other lobes didn’t predict spirituality at all.

However, while attenuated right parietal function did predict increased spirituality, it only achieved statistical significance for one of the Inspirit measure’s five dimensions of spirituality: forgiveness. The statistically significant negative correlation between the Inspirit as a whole and right parietal function depended largely on this single dimension of spirituality. In other words, people whose right parietal lobes didn’t work very well – most likely due to serious injury or illness – seemed to have a much easier time forgiving others than average people did.

Of course, one might question whether “forgiveness” really qualifies as a dimension of spirituality. After all, plenty of people who do not consider themselves “spiritual” or religious in any way forgive others around them on a daily basis. (Think about it: if this weren’t true, no atheists would ever be able to maintain marriages or have kids!) So does this research merely show that reduced right parietal functioning makes it easier to forgive others, without telling us anything about spirituality? Maybe not. Three other dimensions of spirituality – daily spiritual experiences, spiritual values and beliefs, and spiritual coping – were also negatively correlated with right parietal function. These relationships didn’t quite attain statistical significance, but together they contributed to the strong negative correlation between parietal function and spirituality. It’s likely that, in a larger sample, each of these dimensions of spirituality would attain significance.

Meanwhile, people who performed strongly on the test of frontal cortex functioning were much more likely than average to report regularly partaking in private religious practices. The frontal cortex is associated with what’s called executive cognitive function – the ability to direct attention, focus one’s awareness, and filter out distractor stimuli in order to concentrate. Thus, participants who prayed often in private – but not necessarily in public settings such as churches – appeared to have greater ability to focus on tasks and ignore distractions. This relationship makes it difficult to argue, as some might be tempted to do, that spirituality is simply the product of an atrophied brain. Counterintuitively, spirituality seems to be associated with enhanced function in some parts of the brain and reduced function in others.

This study is noteworthy because its authors made and corroborated specific hypotheses linking brain function to spirituality. The implications are clear: a reduced ability to orient one’s body in spatial and temporal relationships appears to be associated with greater spirituality – particularly, in this study, the ability to forgive others. The fact that all the measures of spirituality in this study were self-reports notwithstanding, these results are compelling because they’re theory-driven. If you have a data-based idea of how something works, and you come up with a concrete hypothesis based on that idea, even tenuous test results that match your hypothesis tend to support your underlying idea. The body is where our selves, our egos, are located. A brain that can’t tell where the body is in space and time apparently can’t produce a very robust sense of self – opening the gates to a kind of transcendence.

  • Sabio Lantz

    I liked you metaphor of a libertarian (socially liberal, fiscally conservative) to an awe-inspired atheist (ritual-free yet meaning-embracing). I will always have trouble calling this ‘spirituality’, but I don’t know a better English word. But when you wrote, “This behavioral data reduces uncertainty when it comes to pinning specific spiritual phenomena to underlying neural processes.” You were begging the question about the existence of some such thing called “spiritual phenomena”. Indeed self-lessness, greed and other such behaviors or attitudes are psychological phenomena, not “spiritual” — why add another layer.

    You said, “One thing you almost never hear, however, is that a religious experience made someone more greedy and selfish.”

    Trying to be careful, that claim depend probably does not hold water — holy water or otherwise. I think we could find many studies which show that the effect of religion on some types of individuals and for some types of religion increase greed and selfishness in some domains. So, I’d disagree with your generalization.

    For example here is a recent study summary showing Christians to be selfish tippers.

    And indeed in some contemplative traditions, it is know that some meditative exercises can indeed make a person more neurotic. [addressing your next claim].

    So unless we are careful to limit this to states where the right parietal lobe has depressed activity and not all blissful or ineffible experience, the claims may be too strong. Besides, how many religious folks have the experience tested and how sustained and how life changing, is all vague. That is, of course, unavoidable perhaps. But I did want to throw those correctives in there about religious experience and neurosis and selfishness.

    Also, that you said, ” long-term meditators and religious experts ” are the ones to do this, seemed odd. You should have left off “religious experts” because it just seems experienced meditators have the skill. Being an expert in religion does not most assuredly lead to selfless bliss.

    I felt you were occasionally sloppy in wording here — though it is hard to be careful and yet not verbose. Nonetheless, you said,

    “The implications are clear: a reduced ability to orient one’s body in spatial and temporal relationships appears to be associated with greater spirituality – particularly, in this study, the ability to forgive others.”

    but, in keeping with the study and avoiding horrible over-generalizations, I think this should say:

    “The implications are clear: a reduced ability to orient one’s body in spatial and temporal relationships appears to be associated with the ability to forgive others.”

    That someone wants to take forgiveness, generosity or other things on “spirituality” is a whole other conversation. Why not keep the conversation simple?

  • Sabio Lantz

    Perhaps the bias of one of the researchers is showing. Dan Cohen, one of the authors, is a prof at Univ. of Missouri Religious Studies in this article he says
    ” In many ways, the results of our study support the idea that spirituality functions as a personality trait,…”

    Cohen’s statement seems muddled from the get-go.

  • rumitoid

    Sabio, in ur quest to discredit the spiritual, u equate a significant spiritual experience with religious practice. These two things are worlds apart.

    Thinking Evolutionary Theory, both the tendency to help and forgive others works for survival. Somewhat. We may aid an evolutionary defect to survive and forgive a walking defect to re-enter the flock. This is counter-productive. The demiurges of Tine and Chance will be most upset.

  • connorwood

    Sabio, in response to several of your observations:

    1:) Note that this study focuses on religious EXPERIENCE, not on religious affiliation. No one has ever tested whether religious experience makes people better or worse tippers; the only variables that have been tested in those types of experiments, so far as I am aware, are self-reported religious affiliation and commitment. There is a distinction between these two constructs, and you seem to have conflated them. Your point is a valid one – that religious affiliation does not always cleanly match up with ethical or universally prosocial behavior – but it’s pretty tangential to the claims of the study at hand.

    2:) It’s true that many mediation traditions include warnings against certain styles of meditation, or mistakes that beginners can make, that lead to neurosis. But in general the cross-cultural literature on the effects of meditation on psychological functioning have been overwhelmingly – and I really mean overwhelmingly – positive. Compared with the statistical value of studies that investigate the efficacy of SRIs in combating depression, meditation studies are a slam-dunk. Overall, across individuals, meditation is apparently overwhelmingly beneficial – (genuine) exceptions notwithstanding.

    3.) Finally, your biggest critique seems to be the use of the concept “spirituality” as an overlay or catchall for the positive psychological phenomena the study identifies (forgiveness, feeling meaning in life, etc.). Your question is, essentially, “Why not just call a spade a spade and say that reduced RPL function increases forgiveness, rather than the second-order category of spirituality?” The first response to this is that spirituality is a concept defined, like all categories, by common linguistic consensus; the fact that this category is more vague in its common usage than many does not mean, in my opinion at least, that the category is useless. People use the word “spirituality” millions of times a day across the Anglophone world. Essentially dismissing it as a meaningless concept is, I think, lazy – since it basically advocates reducing the inventory of things we’re willing to investigate to those categories that can be most easily defined and crisply attached to concrete phenomena. But the failures of logical positivism in the mid-20th century made it clear that language does not actually ever offer such crisp one-to-one reference to the objective world, and no categories are inherently simple or even “first-order.” Spirituality may be an underdefined concept, but that does not clearly imply, for me, that we ought not to try to study it to figure out how and in what ways it can be used, or to uncover better understandings of what laypeople mean when they deploy the term. Since consensus linguistic agreement often (but certainly not always) includes traits such as forgiveness and feeling meaning in life within the category “spirituality,” I think the researchers are justified in at least trying to operationalize spirituality in a way that depends on those traits. Second, and I think more importantly in a practical sense, many of the items that were used to question people about spirituality used language that is clearly beyond the mere categories of positive psychology. For instance, “I know that I am forgiven by a higher power;” “I desire to closer to or in union with a higher power;” “The events in my life unfold according to a divine or greater plan.” I don’t know what to call these types of sentiments if we’re not allowed to use the category of “spirituality.”

    My sense is that many of your criticisms are driven by a general skepticism about spiritual matters and the validity of concepts like “God,” “soul,” etc. And that’s fine – the last thing I’d want is for the scientific study of religion to get taken over by crypto-apologists. But I think your criticisms were a little disingenuous for that reason: I’d rather have you simply state that you’re hesitant about the whole idea of there being a genuine spiritual dimension to life, rather than hiding your philosophical convictions behind criticisms of the researchers’ methodology, which was actually fairly good.

  • name

    forgiveness is a demension type thing of spiritualality. that’s what god in the bible represents, forgiveness. forgveness for other people because they don’t always know why they do things. once you gain a higher spiritual awareness forgiveness is critical. anywho. I can connect of will with different parts of my brain, the right and left sides and I can sense the differences… I can also connect with my different chakras at free will.. without meditating… I’ve also done lots of acid that’s probably why… they give cognitive tests to test the right side of the brain with angles and such… but we don’t need to understand angles and shit in everyday life… so what’s the point. unless your building something. being more “left sided” is more of a humble, aware of everyhing around you not looking to deep into things, forgiving, low state. being more right is more of an exited, ignorant, focused on only what’s in front of you state. everything is controlled with energys within and outside. you have to oearn to control the inner ones to control the outer ones, and what influences you. whatever you believe to be true is… because you belive it is… there are no right or wrong ways to think or live your life. only ways that will produce more positive or negative actions and results. spirituality is what makes you who you are. it is a character trait. everything you say and do says something about you, whether you want to make those things known or not. not talking says something about you. talking says something about you, so does what you talk about. eye movement, everything. people at different points on there spiritual journey will be different from others. you have to break free from everybody else to advance forward.