The feeling of transcendence seems to be linked to the right parietal lobe. Brain scans of meditating Buddhist monks show decreased activity in this area, and people with brain damage in the region report feeling more spiritual.
Now a new study has taken a closer look in patients undergoing surgery for brain tumours. Using a sensitive measure of spirituality and accurate mapping of the brain lesion, they were able to tie down the relationships to two specific brain regions, shown in the image.
One of these is located in the right parietal lobe, and the other in the left parietal lobe. These parts of the brain are linked to awareness of where your body (and body parts) is in space.
So these results support the idea the transcendental experiences are caused by a loss of function in these key brain areas. What’s interesting was the effect was both immediate (it happened straight after surgery) and prolonged (it was detectable in patients who had previously been operated on for a tumour in the same area).
And feeling more transcendental seemed to turn them on to religion. Patients whose brain tumours were located in this area reported being more religious even before surgery. So if somebody you know suddenly takes up churchgoing, you might want to refer them to your friendly, local neurologist!
Urgesi, C., Aglioti, S., Skrap, M., & Fabbro, F. (2010). The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence Neuron, 65 (3), 309-319 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.026