Isn’t this a bit controversial?
Yes, for sure it could be a bit controversial. It could be controversial because the nature of spirituality is assigning things to inexplicable external forces and so by identifying a brain circuit for this we may be undermining those beliefs.
Why bother to find a spirituality circuit in the brain?
Well, these beliefs are widespread with, according to some reports, up to 80% of people around the world considering themselves religious or spiritual. It would be good to know something that is happening in the brains of 80% of the world’s population!
Haven’t we already researched this?
Well, actually the research has been sporadic and sparse. Seems like it’s a bit of a touchy topic to move into. Realistically, it’s probably just low down the funding list! Scientists need funding to do their research.
So what did the researchers do?
The researchers around Michael Ferguson at Brigham and Women’s Hospital looked at datasets of people with brain lesions. Lesion studies are studies of patients who have had brain damage or brain surgery to remove different parts of the brain. They also analysed data from over 100 trauma patients from the Vietnam war.
And what did they find?
So, they found, in the one dataset of those undergoing neurosurgery, that (from 88) 30 showed a decrease in self-reported spiritual belief after neurosurgical procedure, 29 showed an increase, and 29 showed no change.
Wow, neurosurgery can impact our spiritual beliefs!
I’m intrigued. What was the brain circuit involved?
Quite a surprising area actually. It was a circuit involving something called the periaqueductal gray (PAG).
Why is this surprising?
Surprising because this is a brainstem region, sitting deep in the brain at the top of the spinal cord, and therefore considered an older area of the brain…