Yale study finds where the spiritual lives in our brains

Dr. Marc Potenza

Dr. Marc Potenza

NEW HAVEN — Whether it’s a connection to God, to the wonder of nature or even a strong loyalty to a college football team, people at some point feel a sense of connection to something beyond themselves, a feeling often called spirituality.

Now a study involving researchers from Yale University and the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University Teachers College, developed “to test individuals’ spiritual experiences,” has found the locations in the brain where that feeling resides, which could assist those treating addiction or depression, according to Dr. Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and the Yale Child Study Center.

The study was published online May 29 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The experiments, involving 27 young adults, used guided audio recordings based on the subjects’ personal recountings of spiritual, stressful or relaxing experiences. The study subjects listened to the recordings while undergoing functional MRI scans.

“During all three, there was a strong sense of vividness of experience,” Potenza said. “We wanted to understand how spirituality might differ from a stressful condition but also from a relaxing condition.”

Each person in the study was asked to describe an experience they had undergone recently that they felt connected them with something bigger than themselves, “a strong force which could be experienced as an energy force, higher power, spiritual force, God, deity, transcendent figure or consciousness,” Potenza said.

“These states could be experienced in places of worship, at home in one’s daily life or outdoors in nature,” he said. “The experience may be extremely vivid or intense or they may be relatively accentuated experiences that may filter into an ongoing transcendental connection or a daily way of being connected to something more.”

The “neutral or relaxing” experience would be “an experience where they felt more calm, more at ease, more peaceful but not with the connection with something outside themselves or others.” They were also asked to describe a time in which they experienced stress or anxiety. Each person heard six recordings, two of each type.

The researchers found differences in “brain activation patterns” in response to spiritual experiences compared with both stressful and relaxing experiences, Potenza said.

They found that the parietal cortex, which is responsible for awareness of self and others, was involved when the research subjects’ heard a recounting of their spiritual experiences, Potenza said, and that this was differentiated from the responses to the stressful and the neutral-relaxing tapes.

“What the study shows is that we can induce a state where people report an increase in experiences of spirituality,” he said.

By looking at brain scans while the young adults were listening to the recordings, the researchers could distinguish the reaction to the spiritual experience as distinct from the neutral-relaxing and stressful experiences, Potenza said. The parietal cortex was the main area where the differences could be seen on the fMRI scans.

The sense of spirituality is “relatively decreased in reference to the relaxed state and relatively increased in reference to the stressed state,” Potenza said.

While the study was limited in scope, Potenza said there is potential for researchers to discover more about the connection between the brain and spirituality.

“Given the role that spirituality has for many people in recovery from addiction and resilience against mental health concerns like depression, the current study provides a foundation for understanding how these processes may work at a neurobiological level,” he said. “This would have to be investigated in future studies because the current study does not address this directly.”

Potenza called the findings “another brick in the wall” in the search for “different states of consciousness, different states of awareness.”

“This is the first time to my knowledge that a guided imagery task has been used to assess spiritual states at subjective and brain-based levels,” he said. It was “a significant step forward” that feelings of spirituality were found to be distinct from a merely relaxing state or a stressful state.

“The findings demonstrate that we can induce strong feelings of spirituality that are specific to the spiritual condition and that we can identify brain activation patterns that differ across the three conditions,” he said.

The findings do not come as a surprise to the Rev. Keri Aubert, priest-in-charge at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in New Haven. Formerly a chemical engineer who grew up amid the oil refineries of Louisiana, Aubert sees no conflict between physical feelings of spirituality and the transcendent.

“For me all of this information, all of it contributes to the sense of awe that I feel about God, the wondrousness of creation that we’re only beginning to understand,” she said.

She said the separation of the bodily and spiritual nature of human beings dates back to the middle ages, when “there was a lot of suspicion of the body. … The body had to be divorced from [the spirit] in order to achieve true spiritual realization.”

Aubert said she grew up Roman Catholic in the sixties, when there was still “a suspicion of the body. Female bodies in particular, starting from the middle ages, were very much the source of suspicion because of Eve and the Fall.”

“As we understand more about the brain and how the brain works and how the body works, that tells us something about God,” Aubert said. “That core sense of God is deeply embedded in our bodies. The studies show there is something that happens in our bodies when we have these experiences. I have them in church but I very much have them in nature.”

The connection between physical experience and spirituality “brings a holiness that makes sense,” she said.