There is growing evidence that suggests our brains may be naturally wired — by experience or by design — for spirituality. Researchers pioneering the neurobiology of spiritual practices hope to answer questions that have challenged spiritual and religious thinkers for centuries, from the neural nature of revelatory and mystical experiences to the changes in brain function that register the neuro-chemical activity in our brains when we meditate, engage in yoga, and visualize our oneness with God.
It is becoming clear that spiritual practices have many neurological, biological, physiological, and psychological benefits. The exact neural basis of these effects is slowly coming to light, and different imaging techniques are showing the neural basis of spiritual practices. The evidence points toward the involvement of the prefrontal and parietal cortices.
Before we go too far, let’s explain the difference between spirituality and religion, as they are practiced today. Spirituality involves as its central tenet a connection to something greater than ourselves, which includes an emotional experience of that ‘something greater.’ The word religion is a combination of two words:
- ‘re’ meaning return
- ‘igare’ meaning to bind
We believe religions originated as a way of humankind as a whole meeting it’s innate need for spirituality. We also want to make it perfectly clear that spirituality and religion are not interchangeable. Spirituality is not a dogmatic religious path, nor is it a ‘worship a god in the sky who is an entity separate from you’ path. It is a path of Self-realization that acknowledges you are the human expression of the Eternal Presence (God) expressing Itself at the point of you.
A Closer Look at the Neurobiology of Spiritual Practices
That said, let’s take a closer look at the neurobiology of spiritual practices. At the present time there is a paucity of evidence outlining the neural correlates of spiritual practices. Most of the current studies have concentrated on meditative practices and are using functional imaging as the investigative tool. They are actually peering inside the brain to find out what’s going on during so-called spiritual experiences. These imaging tools include the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) studies on Yoga, Tantric Yoga and Yoga Nidra; the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study on Kundalini Yoga; and the Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography (SPECT) study on Tibetan meditation.
Researchers are expanding their studies to include neuroanatomical and neurochemical imaging techniques to evaluate a wider bandwidth of spiritual practices such as prayer, religious singing, rituals, visualization, affirmations, mantras, etc.
Brain-imaging studies on long-time meditative practitioners and people doing contemplative prayer show their blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, which correlates with neuronal activity, revealing how their brain looks during transcendent and mystical experiences. Subjects describe being in a superior conscious state, having ‘touched infinity,’ or ‘being one with the universe,’ with the left dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, caudate, and the orbitofrontal cortex areas lighting up to record their experience.
Using a brain scanner, scientists eavesdrop on the mind of a meditating Buddhist monk. Using skin sensors, researchers measure the power of holy words by testing how brain synapses respond to sacred texts. Neuropsychiatrists assess the effects of prayer. Neuroscientists measure brain function among those who report feelings of union and oneness with God and the cosmos. Using radioactive tracers researchers probe the neurobiology of spiritual experience in search of a scientific perspective on the divine.
Researchers have even gone so far as to propose that a specific gene (VMAT2), called the ‘God gene’ predisposes us towards spiritual and/or mystical experiences, including the very presence of God. This purported ‘God gene’ appears to be involved in the transport of monoamine neurotransmitters across the synapses in the brain which produce feelings of self-transcendence.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Our own opinion is that our neurobiology registers in the brain what our mind perceives as spiritual experiences. In other words, our neurobiology doesn’t cause transcendent experiences, it just registers (records) them in our brain’s neural circuits as chemical reactions. Since we’ve been that emphatic, we may as well add that neurobiologists might want to brush up on spirituality and spiritual teachers ought to familiarize themselves with good science.
We are convinced that one day, scientists and spiritual teachers alike will agree that each cell, every molecule, each atom in our physical bodies is a sacred tabernacle of Spirit. They might even agree these sacred tabernacles are quantumly and cosmically connected. They even might see that there is no denominational sparring and that our biology is our theology.
When they as scientists and we as spiritual beings realize the significance of this invisible connection, we will honor the human soul’s relationship to Spirit as a collective. And when we acknowledge this connection, from soul to cell, we will see that our body has always been the highly-charged sacred ground of our being.
When we achieve this perfect synchrony between science and spirituality, we will experience the inner peace, joy, health, and wholeness which are the truth of all of us as we skip down the neurobiological path of our spirituality together.