Scientists at several schools, including Yale University, have identified one part of the brain that activates when we have spiritual experiences.
They looked at an area of the brain called the parietal cortex, a part of the brain toward the top and the back—kind of under the crown of your head. Scientists already know the parietal cortex helps us pay attention to what’s going on and it plays a role in our awareness of ourselves in relation to others.
Marc Potenza, an author on the study, says it shows spiritual experiences fall into this category, too.
“These typically involve a feeling of a union with something larger than oneself. So one can think of the spiritual experience as involving a dissolution of the boundary between the self and the other.”
Potenza and scientists from other schools, including Columbia University, devised an experiment to test this. They had 27 young adults sit down and talk about times they felt like they experienced something greater than themselves.
“The states they reported were related in some cases to religious experiences, unions with nature, or it could relate to a large, for example, sporting event.”
Scientists recorded the stories, and then played back the subjects’ own words to them as they monitored their brain activity with an fMRI scan. They saw lots of activity in—you guessed it—the parietal cortex. And now that scientists know that, they can take their research to another level.
Potenza says we’re really just beginning to understand the spiritual experiences that are so important to many people.
“Spirituality can play a very important role for people in their lives. It may give them important meaning, it may help them in recovery processes, for example from addictions, it may help them with respect to being more resilient to mental health concerns like depression.”
So for the next step, the team wants to include factors like mental illness, addiction and stress to their studies to try to put a picture in the brain of how we use spirituality to help us get through tough times.