The astounding force that we know as spirituality and the widespread practice of religion in nearly every culture in the world has had, at its core, intensely massive effect on entire civilizations of people and has altered the course of our very history. But, why is this so? Is there a neurological or scientific reason for our desire to be spiritually connected to a higher being? Recent research suggests that is actually the case and has given the term “spiritual brain” to the concept.
Researchers have oft explored explanation for many spiritual phenomena, like near-death experiences and elevated levels of oneness with God. Surprisingly, many of the effects in that of our spiritual brain are similar in nature to the mind/body fight-or-flight response that we usually associate with survival. The parts of the brain linked to survival developed long before other parts associated with language and advanced reasoning. This suggests that our inherent need for spirituality and connection is as primal as our need to survive.
Neuroscience shows that the pathways used during profound spiritual experiences are the same pathways used by entheogenic substances – substances used for spiritual and ritualistic purposes across a vast number of religious practices.
The Frontal Lobe
In a recent study, the brains of nuns and Buddhist monks were examined to determine which parts of the brain were in use during deeply spiritual practice – in this case reverie of prayer and meditation. The frontal lobes lit up and became very active. Essentially, the frontal lobe is the volume knob of the brain. It turns down the levels at which other parts of our brain are communicating. Because the minds of these individuals are so honed with respect to prayer and meditation, they’re brains were quite literally focused on nothing but their respective spiritual exercises. It is believed that during these times, the brain can experience levels of selfless compassion, exultation, and benevolence.
In addition to the frontal lobe, there are various other brain structures involved in spirituality and spiritual practice, including the amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex. The parietal lobe tends to become very active during times of intense spiritual connectivity and other parts of the brain tend to get less blood flow. This is our brain’s attempt to divert all of our attention to the spiritual practice in which we are participating.
The Immune and Endocrine Systems
The brain is undeniably connected to all the other physiological systems in the body, like the immune system, and the endocrine system. Thus, it stands to reason that when you change something at the mind level, for instance a spiritual belief, you influence not only your brain, but all the other physiological systems connected, for instance, the immune system.
Spiritual focus and religious principles can alter brain activity and heighten the body’s immune system, which can lead to extemporaneous lessening of a disease or even the complete healing of a sickness.
When our spiritual brains are synchronized with our physical bodies, the immune system gets very resilient. Monks in the aforementioned study didn’t get sick because their systems were so integrated and so spiritually structured that disease couldn’t live in their body. The signal that’s travelling down the central nervous system is creating amazing order that allows the body to begin to function in wonderful ways.
The Spiritual Organ
The possibility that our brains and our spiritually are so inextricably intertwined allows us to believe in possibilities that may seem inconceivable now. It can mean that our brains are actually strengthening our personal quests for transcendent meaning and a deeper, more mature spirituality.
For the first time in history, it is possible to see clearly how any variety of spiritual experiences is indivisibly bound to our very primal brains. It is true that spirituality is a much more dynamic concept than most and that even if we know how every molecule in our brain is working towards personal enlightenment, there will still be a mystery surrounding it.