Religion has long been a topic of philosophical discussion, but only relatively recently have neuroscientists begun to investigate faith and spirituality, too. Several different strands of research now indicate that there are specific parts of our brains that relate to belief in God, and that if certain parts of the brain are stimulated or damaged, it can lead to a dramatic change in faith or spirituality.
Endeavoring to investigate this question, Dr. Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine, Italy, led a study to assess the likelihood of self-transcendence (ST) in patients who had received brain surgery. Self-transcendence was defined as a decreased sense of self, with an ability to identify yourself as being “at one with the universe,” an integral part of it. The researchers assessed patients’ ST levels both before and after they had surgery, taking precise care to note exactly where brain lesions occurred as a result of surgery. They found that damage to the posterior parietal areas—usually associated with visuospatial processing, e.g., being able to reach for an object, as well as the online representation of one’s own body (body schema)—caused changes in the patients’ self-transcendence, increasing the likelihood of a person experiencing it.
Yet it is not necessary to undergo brain surgery to experience a dramatic change in how you view your spirituality or beliefs; a substance called psilocybin appears to be very effective in this regard. In research at Johns Hopkins University during the past decade, psilocybin—the active ingredient in the sacred mushrooms used by Indian tribes in Central America as a religious sacrament for over 2,000 years—has been administered as the primary tool in exploring these alternative states of consciousness. Psilocybin is a tryptamine alkaloid, similar in structure to serotonin and dimethyltryptamine, which are produced naturally in the human brain.
Psychologist William A. Richards, of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, has conducted around 500 psychedelic therapy sessions. Given appropriate dosage in a supportive setting, many of these sessions follow a familiar pattern: The study participant reports initial sensory changes, often vibrant colors and patterns with closed eyes; then he/she may move on to a more introspective or psychodynamic stage, where personal life history and relationships may become focal. “Then,” says Richards, “a spiritual (or transpersonal) form of consciousness may become predominant, in which visionary imagery (of gods, goddesses, precious metals and stones, ancient civilizations and/or cosmic panoramas) may occur, finally opening into unitive-mystical states of awareness beyond the limits of the usual everyday personality. This phase often entails a reported sense of oneness and interconnectedness, as well as intuitive insights about religious and philosophical issues such as the ultimate structure of reality and immortality.”
It’s tempting to view studies such as this with suspicion. The fact that people undergo spiritual experiences while under the influence of a mind-altering chemical could be as meaningless as a person who feels more confident when they are drunk. But results indicate that this is not the case. Professor of psychiatry and neuroscience Roland R. Griffiths, also of Johns Hopkins University, has worked with Richards on some of the psilocybin studies—and their results indicate that the effects of the psilocybin experience are not just profound; they are also long-lasting. When Griffiths and his study’s coauthors followed up with participants 14 months later, more than half maintained that the experience had been among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives, with 64% saying that the experience had increased their well-being or life satisfaction.
So if physical changes to the brain can create religious or spiritual experience, does religious experience also cause changes to the brain?
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