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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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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