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Scientists Locate Spiritual Part Of Brain Not Necessarily Activated By Religion

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A team of scientists pinpoints the exact portion of the brain activated when people process spiritual experiences regardless whether the trigger is religious or not.

The researchers referred to this portion of the brain as the "neurobiological home" of spiritual experience. This is activated whenever people experience a sense of connection that could feel like they are overwhelmed with a power greater than oneself.

Previous studies that similarly tried to identify the spiritual part of the brain focused in examining the neural activities of people that connect with specific religions or those who already mastered how to stimulate the mind's transcendent states.

This recent study, performed by scientists at Yale University and the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University, examined the experiences of people with different religions and with a varied definition of what constitutes spirituality.

Neurobiological Home For The Spiritual Experience

The portion of the brain that processes spiritual experiences is the "parietal cortex" or the "left inferior parietal lobule" to be specific. This part of the brain is also activated whenever an individual becomes aware of himself or others. It is also stimulated when a person uses his or her attention skills.

For their study, the researchers, headed by Marc Potenza, professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and neuroscience, interviewed 27 young adults. They asked the participants about their past stressful, relaxing, and spiritual experiences.

After the interview, the participants underwent fMRI scans as they listen to materials recorded based on their personalized transcendent experiences.

The fMRI scans revealed that even with different spiritual experiences, their brains showed similar activity coming from the parietal cortex. The participants' brain waves reflected a similar pattern as they continue to listen to their respective recordings or in effect as they experienced their respective transcendent states.

"We observed in the spiritual condition, as compared with the neutral-relaxing condition, reduced activity in the left inferior parietal lobule (IPL), a result that suggests the IPL may contribute importantly to perceptual processing and self-other representations during spiritual experiences," the researchers wrote in the study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The study also stated that the brain's medial thalamus and caudate, the portion responsible for sensory and emotional processing, were less responsive to spiritual stimuli as compared to stress.

Spiritual Experience And Mental Health

Based on similar brain activities seen despite the participants' varied notion of spirituality, the scientists concluded that spiritual experience is not limited to an individual's level of religiosity.

Spiritual experience can be a feeling of communion with God and can also be a feeling of being one in nature or when one embraces humanity. Spiritual experience can also be as simple as being elated during sporting events.

Ultimately, the researchers say the study can help experts understand how spiritual experience can impact people's mental health.

"Spiritual experiences are robust states that may have profound impacts on people's lives," said Potenza.

"Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders," he explained.

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