Humans have sought relationships with deities from the beginning of time. Makes you wonder if we’re wired for it. Have you ever heard of the “God Spot?” Do we really have one? Let’s take a look…
Dr. Ferguson wants to pursue ways in which the findings can assist in understanding the role of spirituality and compassion in clinical treatment.
If you were traipsing around the online psych world and saw it, what would be your reaction?
Well, I was hooked and had to learn more. And after jumping from article to article, I found what I was looking for…
“Researchers Identify Brain Circuit for Spirituality”
Brigham and Women’s Hospital posted a Research Brief entitled “Researchers Identify Brain Circuit for Spirituality,” dated July 1, 2021. It announced the results of a study completed by their Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics.
A neural circuit for spirituality and religiosity derived from patients with brain lesions appeared in the June 29, 2021 edition of Biological Psychiatry. The study team leads were Michael Ferguson, PhD and Michael D. Fox, MD, PhD.
The Brief begins by pointing out that more than 80% of people around the world consider themselves religious or spiritual. Curious thing is, research on the neuroscience of spirituality and religiosity has been sparse.
It goes on to state that the functional neuroimaging used in previous studies rendered a spotty and often inconsistent picture of spirituality. However, the new and advanced approach to mapping spirituality and religiosity used in their study delivered on the mark and fascinating results.
Speaking of those results, here’s the gist. Dr. Ferguson, Dr. Fox, and team used lesion network mapping to identify a specific brain circuit that serves as a neural underlay for spirituality and religiosity.
Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric. We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centered in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain.
Are you wondering what the structure is? Hang in there.
How did they do that?
So how did the team come up with the goods? They used data from another study in which 88 patients completed the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) before and after brain tumor resection – occurring in various places throughout the brain.
The TCIs spiritual acceptance subscale is a validated measure of spirituality and religiosity.
Interesting: 30 patients reported a decrease in spiritual belief, 29 reported an increase, and 29 reported no change.
The periaqueductal gray
Makes sense that the brain lesions in patients with changes in spiritual belief would be mapped. And when they were, the brain circuit for spirituality was found to be centered in the periaqueductal gray (PAG).
The PAG is a column of cells that stretches 14 millimeters/.5 inches in the midbrain portion of the brainstem. You can see its approximate location in the image.
The PAG plays a major role in pain modulation, fear conditioning, defensive behaviors, altruistic behaviors, and unconditional love. Given its size, think about how incredible that is.
Is the PAG the “God Spot?” If you want it to be, sure. All I know is the discovery is huge.
Are there other players?
The brain circuit for spirituality may be centered in the PAG, but are there other players?
Of particular note, a 2012 University of Missouri-Columbia study suggested the frontal-parietal brain circuit (located in the cerebrum) is related to spiritual-religious experiences.
The authors went on to speculate that “selflessness,” associated with decreased right parietal lobe functioning, is the primary neuropsychological foundation for spiritual transcendence – having less focus on self, which makes one more capable of focusing on things beyond.
Keep in mind, the PAG (located in the midbrain) is anatomically connected to the prefrontal cortex, our executive functioning center, and other brain structures. And though certain parts of the brain may play a dominant role, they all work together to facilitate spiritual experiences.
The study may be completed, but the Brigham and Women’s team isn’t finished.
They want to see if they can replicate the study results across a variety of spiritual and religious backgrounds.
And how ‘bout this? Dr. Ferguson wants to pursue ways in which the findings can assist in understanding the role of spirituality and compassion in clinical treatment.
Only recently have medicine and spirituality been fractionated from one another. There seems to be this perennial union between healing and spirituality across cultures and civilizations.
I’m interested in the degree to which our understanding of brain circuits could help craft scientifically grounded, clinically-translatable questions about how healing and spirituality can co-inform each other.
Please keep up the good work.
A “God Spot?”
Humans have sought and embraced relationships with deities from the beginning of time. And 80% of us consider ourselves to be religious or spiritual. It really does make the case for common wiring.
A “God Spot?” That’s up to you.
The Brigham and Women’s Research Brief: Researchers Identify Brain Circuit for Spirituality
If you’d like to read the entire study: A neural circuit for spirituality and religiosity derived from patients with brain lesions
The 2012 University of Missouri-Columbia study: Right Parietal Lobe-Related “Selflessness” as the Neuropsychological Basis of Spiritual Transcendence (fee to download)
“Is the ‘God Spot’ Rooted Far Below Our Brain’s Thinking Cap?,” written by Christopher Berglan, was helpful in putting this piece together.
Plenty more Chipur mood and anxiety info and inspiration articles. Review the titles.
Key brain structures image: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Author: Belomaad. No changes made.