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No single “God spot” in brain, scientists find

April 20, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Missouri
and World Science staff

Mul­ti­ple parts of the hu­man brain con­trib­ute to spir­it­u­al­ity, so there is no sin­gle “God spot” in that or­gan of the mind as sci­en­tists have spec­u­lat­ed, a study in­di­cates.

Univers­ity of Mis­souri sci­en­tists sought to rep­li­cate a pre­vi­ous study find­ing link­ing a sense of spir­it­u­al “tran­scen­dence” with low­ered ac­ti­vity in a brain re­gion called the right pa­ri­e­tal lobe. That find­ing held up, but the re­search­ers al­so de­ter­mined that oth­er as­pects of spir­it­u­al func­tion­ing are re­lat­ed to in­creased ac­ti­vity in anoth­er part of the brain.

“It’s not iso­lat­ed to one spe­cif­ic ar­ea,” said Brick John­stone, a psy­chol­o­gist at the uni­vers­ity who worked on the study. “Spir­i­tual­ity is a much more dy­nam­ic con­cept that uses many parts of the brain. Cer­tain parts of the brain play more pre­dom­i­nant roles, but they all work to­geth­er.”

John­stone stud­ied 20 peo­ple with trau­mat­ic brain in­ju­ries af­fect­ing the right pa­ri­e­tal lobe, which lies a few inches above the right ear. He sur­veyed par­ti­ci­pants on char­ac­ter­is­tics of spir­it­u­al­ity, such as how close they felt to a high­er pow­er and wheth­er they felt their lives were part of a di­vine plan. He found that peo­ple with worse in­ju­ries to that ar­ea felt clos­er to a high­er pow­er.

“Re­search­ers con­sist­ently have shown that im­pair­ment on the right side of the brain de­creases one’s fo­cus on the self,” John­stone not­ed. “S­ince our re­search shows that peo­ple with this im­pair­ment are more spir­it­u­al, this sug­gests spir­it­u­al ex­pe­ri­ences are as­so­ci­at­ed with a de­creased fo­cus on the self. This is con­sist­ent with many re­li­gious texts that sug­gest peo­ple should con­cen­trate on the well-be­ing of oth­ers rath­er than on them­selves.”

The right half of the brain is as­so­ci­at­ed with self-orienta­t­ion; the left, with re­la­tion­ships to oth­ers, John­stone ex­plained. Al­though he stud­ied only brain in­ju­ry pa­tients, pre­vi­ous work with Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tors and Fran­cis­can nuns has found that peo­ple can learn to min­i­mize the func­tion­ing of their right brains to in­crease spir­it­u­al “con­nec­tions” dur­ing medita­t­ion and pray­er.

John­stone al­so found a cor­rela­t­ion be­tween in­creased ac­ti­vity in a part of the brain called the front­al lobe—just be­hind the fore­head­—and great­er par­ticipa­t­ion in re­li­gious prac­tices, such as church at­tend­ance and lis­ten­ing to re­li­gious pro­grams. The study is pub­lished in the In­terna­t­ional Jour­nal of the Psy­chol­o­gy of Re­li­gion.


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Multiple parts of the human brain contribute to spirituality, so there is no single “God spot” in that organ of the mind as scientists have speculated, a study indicates. University of Missouri scientists sought to replicate a previous study finding linking a sense of spiritual “transcendence” with lowered activity in a brain region called the right parietal lobe. That finding held up, but the researchers also determined that other aspects of spiritual functioning are related to increased activity in another part of the brain. “It’s not isolated to one specific area,” said Brick Johnstone, a psychologist at the university. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together.” Johnstone studied 20 people with traumatic brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe, which lies a few inches above the right ear. He surveyed participants on characteristics of spirituality, such as how close they felt to a higher power and whether they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. He found that people with worse injuries to that area felt closer to a higher power. “Researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self,” Johnstone noted. “Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves.” The right half of the brain is associated with self-orientation; the left, with how individuals relate to others, Johnstone explained. Although he studied only brain injury patients, previous work with Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns have found that people can learn to minimize the functioning of their right brains to increase spiritual “connections” during meditation and prayer. Johnstone also found a correlation between increased activity in a part of the brain called the frontal lobe—just behind the forehead—and greater participation in religious practices, such as church attendance and listening to religious programs. The study is published in the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion.