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Researchers find brain circuit linked to spirituality, religious beliefs

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Same part of brain is also seat of fear, pain and philanthropy.

Researchers find brain circuit linked to spirituality, religious beliefs
Spirituality is centred around the periaqueductal grey brain circuit, as per recent research published in the Biological Psychiatry journal. Researchers were surprised to discover that this brain circuit for spirituality is well-ensconced in one of the most preserved and evolved structures of the human brain.
The results suggest that our spiritual beliefs originate from the part of our brain which is involved in several other significant functions usually associated with fear, pain and philanthropy, among others.
A team of investigators at Brigham and Women's Hospital surveyed 88 neurosurgical patients (from Catholic or Christian culture), who were undergoing brain tumour surgery, to find out more about this specific brainstem region.
The researchers used lesion network mapping, which allows them to map complex human behaviour to specific brain circuits based on the locations of brain lesions in patients.
Thirty out of the 88 patients, who answered questions on spirituality before and after brain tumour surgery, said they believed less in spirituality after the surgery. Twenty nine patients said they felt more spiritual after the surgery. The remaining 29 patients showed no change.
The researchers also used a second set of database comprising 100 plus patients (from Catholic or Christian culture) with lesions caused by head trauma from combat during the Vietnam War to validate the above. These participants answered questions about religious beliefs.
The researchers had not accessed information about the patients’ upbringing and the impact on spirituality or religiosity. Later, they found and reviewed many patients who became hyper-religious in the aftermath of brain lesions impacting the negative nodes of the circuit.
Earlier, the brain’s periaqueductal grey had been mapped by researchers to fear and pain; as well as to selfless, humane and philanthropic behaviour.
Now researchers have found that the spirituality circuit coincided with lesion locations linked to other neurological and psychiatric disease symptoms, including Parkinson’s.
Though 80 plus percent of the world’s population considers itself religious and spiritual, research on the neuroscience of spirituality and religiosity has been few and far between.
Researchers said spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric.
Earlier, research was done using functional neuroimaging (wherein certain areas of the brain light up), in which a person undergoes a brain scan while doing a task. But this kind of research often gave a patchy and often inconsistent link to spirituality.
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