We now know what a spiritual awakening looks like inside the brain

Neuroscientists are now beginning to unravel the neurobiological processes that take place inside the brain, during a spiritual awakening.

We often think of spirituality as something wholly outside of science. Though they seem diametrically opposed, could there ever be a marriage between the two? Might not science inform spirituality and vice-versa? One problem is, there’s a great range of opinions on what exactly spirituality is. It also varies across cultures and has been interpreted differently at different times in history. Generally speaking, a spiritual experience is one that transcends the self and connects the person to the universe in a profound and meaningful way. This is separate from religion which often includes dogma, religious texts, and some sort of institution.


Traditionally, we’ve known very little about the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for a spiritual awakening. In the last few decades, neuroscientists have been seeking out what such experiences look like, from their perspective. One recent study sheds light on this. The results were published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. In it, Oxford University professor Lisa Miller and colleagues at Yale and Columbia universities, isolated spirituality-related activity in a part of the brain called the parietal cortex. This region is responsible for our attention.

French “sake samurai” Sylvain Huet, offers a branch from a sacred tree for a Shinto ceremony. Shigamo shrine. Kyoto, Japan. Image credit: Getty Images.

To conduct the study, researchers recruited 27 young adults from in and around New Haven, Connecticut. They were each asked to recall a time when they had a spiritual experience. This helped build what researchers called their “imagery script.” Volunteers were asked to recall stressful and peaceful experiences. One week later, participants were put into an fMRI machine and made to listen to a recording of a neutral female voice, who recount their experiences back to them.

The neurological pattern exhibited when a spiritual experience was recounted was the same across all volunteers. While more activity was shown in the parietal cortex (i.e. increased attention), less activity occurred in the left inferior parietal lobe (IPL). This regions is responsible for self-awareness and awareness of others. Researchers believe this is why we lose ourselves during a spiritual awakening, in union with the divine. The medial thalamus and caudate, areas which process sensory input and emotions, also displayed reduced activity.

Psychiatry and neuroscience professor Marc Potenza, worked on this study. He said in a press release, “Spiritual experiences are robust states that may have profound impacts on people’s lives. Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders.” Some limitations are that the volunteer pool was small and that they all came from the same city.

Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise. Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

In a previous study, Miller and colleagues found that a spiritual awakening and depression shared the same pathway, which they called, “two sides of the same coin.” Also, habitual spiritual practices they found, seemed to thicken the the prefrontal cortex, while depression thinned it. This is the part of the brain responsible for executive function, planning, behavior modification, and self-explanation.

What is interesting about their latest study, is that researchers were able to identify the neural mechanisms that take place during any spiritual experience, regardless of what background or tradition the person came from. Still, it used a very small participant pool. A much larger study will be needed to verify these results, and one with a volunteer base that is more varied. Still, these results are promising. One wonders, if and when the neurological origins of the spiritual experience are in fact proven, will it have a profound effect on religion or spirituality, and if so, what?  

To further explore the crossroads of neuroscience and spirituality, click here:

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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