People of many religious faiths share the belief that there is a reality that transcends their personal experience. Now, a study with brain cancer patients hints at brain regions that may regulate this aspect of spiritual thinking. The researchers found that some patients who had surgery to remove part of the parietal cortex became more prone to "self transcendence."
Scientists have grown increasingly interested in the origins and neural underpinnings of religious faith. Yet, contrary to some overenthusiastic media reports, brain scans of people of various faiths asked to ponder their relationship with God have so far failed to turn up a "God spot," suggesting instead that many regions of the brain are involved.
In the new study, psychologist Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine in Italy and colleagues took a different approach, asking 88 brain cancer patients to fill out a widely used personality questionnaire before and after surgery to remove their tumors. One section of the test measures "self transcendence." It asks respondents, for example, about their tendency to become so absorbed in an activity that they lose track of time and place and whether they feel a strong spiritual connection with other people or with nature.
Patients with malignant tumors in posterior brain regions, including the temporal and parietal cortex, scored higher on the self-transcendence scale on average than did those with tumors in the frontal cortex, Urgesi and colleagues reporttoday in Neuron. Moreover, these posterior tumor patients exhibited even higher self-transcendence scores after surgery. Additional analysis suggested that patients who had lost certain areas of the posterior parietal cortex were the most likely to show increases in self-transcendence. The researchers conclude that these regions normally inhibit transcendent thinking and that the damage caused by the tumor and the surgery weakens this inhibition. The researchers saw no postsurgical change in self-transcendence in the patients with frontal lobe tumors or in a group of meningioma patients, whose tumors in the membranes enveloping the brain could be removed without damaging the organ itself.
These posterior parietal brain regions have been implicated in providing awareness of the body's position and location in space, notes Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Damage to this area may disrupt that sense and make it easier to transcend the reality of the here and now, Davidson suggests.
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 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."
The study does leave many questions unanswered, but it's an encouraging step nonetheless, says Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "Sometimes people are quite skeptical about combining spirituality and religion with neuroscience," he says. "This is one of the few things I've read that gives the hope that some of these questions might be tractable."