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Ever feel like praying? There is a place in your brain for that.

The area in question – the right parietal lobe – is responsible for defining “Me,” said researcher Brick Johnstone of Missouri University. It generates self-criticism, he said, and guides us through physical and social terrains by constantly updating our self-knowledge: my hand, my cocktail, my witty conversation skills, my new love interest …

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People with less active Me-Definers are more likely to lead spiritual lives, reports the study in the current issue of the journal Zygon.

Most previous research on neuro-spirituality has been based on brain scans of actively practicing adherents (i.e. meditating monks, praying nuns) and has resulted in broad and inconclusive findings. (Is the brain area lighting up in response to verse or spiritual experience?)

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So Johnstone and colleague Bret Glass turned to the tried-and-true techniques of neuroscience’s early days – studying brain-injured patients. The researchers tested brain regions implicated in the previous imaging studies with exams tailored to each area’s expertise – similar to studying the prowess of an ear with a hearing test. They then looked for correlations between brain region performance and the subjects’ self-reported spirituality.

Among the more spiritual of the 26 subjects, the researchers pinpointed a less functional right parietal lobe, a physical state which may translate psychologically as decreased self-awareness and self-focus.

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The finding suggests that one core tenant of spiritual experience is selflessness, said Johnstone, adding that he hopes the study “will help people think about spirituality in more specific ways.”

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