Spirituality on the brain

By Ann Griswold • Published: April 15th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

A brush with death can trigger an out-of-body experience… Deep meditation can create feelings of one-ness with the universe… Spiritual fervor can inspire one to speak in tongues. Paranormal phenomena have intrigued secular and religious scholars for centuries. Now scientists are using brain scans and other tools to get inside the heads of people who undergo intense spiritual experiences.

Studies of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns show that deep mediation incites a flurry of activity in the prefrontal cortex… a part of the brain involved in focusing and attention. But the frontal lobe, a region of the brain involved in self-control, is silent when people speak in tongues. Even more striking is the discovery that out-of-body experiences can be artificially induced in conscious volunteers by stimulating the part of the brain responsible for orientation, called the temporal-parietal [TEMP-or-ahl-pah-RYE-eh-tal] junction.

People of faith view the studies as physical evidence that the brain can communicate with God. But others say the studies prove that spiritual experiences are “all in the head,” because these phenomena can be artificially stimulated by crossing wires in the brain. Many psychiatrists, on the other hand, say they hope the research will allow them to induce intense spiritual experiences in patients to encourage positive life changes.

The mystery of whether these experiences are metaphysical or merely physical is no closer to being solved, but scholars hope the results will finally shed light on the mysterious conduit between spirituality and science.