achieving transcendence with brain surgery

A study of brain cancer patients in Italy shows the neural epicenters of spiritual experiences and religious belief.
neurons exchanging signal

Want to get closer to your supernatural deity of choice? You could spend years memorizing holy books, scrolls purported to contain ancient wisdom, and study dense, esoteric tomes filled with endless ruminations on all kinds of vague topics, like most religious scholars. Or you could just have surgery on your parietal cortex and give it three days to a week before feelings of transcendence and a closeness to the divine set in. This is what researchers in Italy found after studying the reports from patients who had surgery on brain tumors located in the aforementioned region of the brain. These findings seem to agree with previous research, which shows a link between the parietal, frontal and temporal cortexes in the making of a spiritual experience, and offer new evidence that religion is more about what goes on in your head than what may be happening outside of it.

The study is based on 88 brain cancer patients who were asked to indicate to what degree they agreed with a series of statements about how close they feel to nature, other people, or some mystical universal power. The distribution of answers was plotted before and after surgeries and patients whose parietal cortexes were the surgeon’s target tended to agree with the more spiritual statements, as well as agreed with them more often. This is not a concrete demonstration of how the brain conjures up spiritual beliefs, but it does point to the role of a particular brain center as one of the culprits.

Together, the frontal, parietal and temporal cortexes deal with one’s social skills and orientation in space and time, so tinkering with them during surgery or damaging them in an injury should alter one’s perceptions and ideas of the outside world. This is why the study’s results were not much of a surprise to the experts. In fact, some neuroscientists thought there was a missed opportunity to learn a lot more about the way the brain processes religious beliefs…

Uffe Schjødt, a psychologist at Aarhus University in Denmark adds that he and others have found that some of the same regions become active during prayer and meditation. But he says that the authors missed a golden opportunity by not conducting more detailed interviews with the patients after their surgeries. “The study does not tell us anything about religiosity, religious practices, or mystical experiences post-surgery, which is a shame.”

There’s also an interesting caveat to consider about the frontal cortex. Surgeons rarely have to do any damage to it when removing a brain tumor located in the front of the brain. However, tumors near the parietal cortexes come with a greater risk for damage. After parietal patients boosted their spirituality scores and frontal cortex patients stayed where they were pre-surgery, the researchers felt confident enough to point to what they were sure was the culprit in the sudden gain in transcendent feelings. But this doesn’t mean that the frontal cortex has been ruled out as important in religious beliefs and experiences.

After all, it helps govern decision-making as well as playing a significant role in analytical tasks. The choice to embrace a religion because it gives some sense of comfort or fulfills a psychological need would have to be processed there. And that note brings us to a very important point. Just like there’s no real evidence for a God gene that makes us biologically disposed to supernatural beliefs, there is no God spot in the brain. Religion is a product of complex cognition, decision making and culture and pinning it down to one cortex or a chain of nucleobases just isn’t going to happen.

See: Weaver, J. (2010). Brain surgery boosts spirituality Nature DOI: 10.1038/news.2010.66

# science // brain / neurology / religion / religious beliefs

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