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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

The Material Nature of Spirituality


It was observed from the 'time to think' experiments done in Biology 103 lab, that thinking is material. Thinking was associated with material changes and activities in the brain and the connected nervous system. This promulgates the brain=behavior notion. According to this notion, all aspects of human behavior and experiences are functions of a material structure, the brain. Who one is, is determined by his or her brain. Nevertheless, many people continue to believe in a 'higher power' that guides and controls human action and behavior. In a sense, religion and spirituality was developed to understand and explore questions about 'who we are' and 'what is the purpose of life'.

Whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, religious thinking and belief attempt to ground human experiences and thoughts in the spiritual and ethereal. Religious experiences are considered 'otherworldly' and not material. Heightened spiritual behavior through prayer, meditation or yoga is considered to lead to a state of 'transcendence', 'inner peace' or a 'nearness to God' depending on which faith you follow. Hence, the notion of spirituality and religion is based on an ethereal component. However could the ethereal and spiritual be embodied by a material structure, the brain? Recent scientific research has provided observations, which suggest spirituality, and religious experience has a biological basis. Scientific observations suggest there are specific physiological aspects to spiritual behavior like meditation, prayer, and yoga.

Many people nowadays follow transcendental meditation, prayer, and yoga to enhance their spiritual and physical well being. These spiritual practices are 'in' activities, which produce physiological health benefits (2) . Among regular practitioners of meditation and prayer, a higher level of psychological health has been observed. Anxiety and depression are lowered. Regular meditation and prayer decreases the stress hormone, 'plasma cortisol' (2). Transcendental meditation and yoga also increase EEG coherence and blood flow to the brain, induce muscle relaxation and lowers blood pressure (2). Could all these benefits of increased spiritual behavior be associated with biology and the workings of the brain? Could science enable us to understand and explore religious and spiritual experiences?

For many years, neurobiology has avoided to explore spirituality and religion. Until recently, religion and spirituality were deemed as 'cultural, a product of social conditioning, and not biological' (1). Religious beliefs and spirituality was the 'playing field' for theologists and philosophers, not biologists and scientists. Many scientists were skeptical and unwilling to consider the spiritual as science. "For most wearers of white coats, philosophy is to science as pornography is to sex" (a quote by science writer, Steven Jones) (1). Nevertheless, quite a few scientists have taken the bold step to conduct research and observations to explore the biological basis of spirituality and religion.

Neurobiologists Andrew Newberg and Eugene d'Aquili have conducted research in the specialized field of 'neurotheology' (1) which suggest that 'religion is intimately interwoven with human biology' (1). Their extensive observations of praying Franciscan nuns and meditating Buddhist monks reveal that certain religious experiences like meditation and prayer are linked to heightened activity and changes in the material structure of the brain and nervous system. According to Newberg, the 'human brain is genetically wired to encourage religious beliefs' (1). Spiritual experiences like transcendence and inner peace, through meditation and prayer are increased by the activities and interactions of the different areas of the brain and neural networks (1).

Many parts of the brain are involved in the development of spiritual experiences. Different parts of the brain do not work in isolation from one another. The brain and nervous system function as an integrated network. Since spiritual behavior such as prayer and meditation involve 'highly complex emotions, sensations and thoughts' (1), therefore many parts are involved. The limbic system, that part of the brain which is associated with emotions and motivation and the connecting hypothalamus, amygdala and the hippocampus are observed to be involved in spiritual activity (1). Some of the most basic components of the nervous system like the arousal and quiescent system also foster religious experiences (1). However, the experiments conducted by Newberg and d'Aquili on Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns noted that there were some specific areas of the brain, which exhibited more heightened activity during the climax of meditation or prayer.

A brain imaging technology called Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) was used to ascertain what happened in the brain during spiritual experiences (1). This enabled imaging of the brain, to determine which areas are active, by measuring blood flow to the areas of the brain (3). Higher the blood flow to an area, higher the brain and neural activity observed for that area (3). Firstly, a baseline scan of the subject's brain during rest was taken (3). This was compared with the brain scan taken when the subject indicated he/she was at the 'climax' of her spiritual experience (3).

The frontal lobes of the brain, which are associated with attention, showed increased activity (1).This was expected since greater concentration and focus was essential to meditation and prayer. However, what was most interesting was the decreased activity observed in the posterior superior parietal lobe (1).This area of the brain is affiliated with the Orientation Association Area (OAA), which is the part of the brain, which significantly influences our orientation of time and space (1).This area of the brain helps to judge which way is up/down, forward/behind etc (1).This brain region must function all the time to assist movement (1).People who suffer injuries to the OAA are observed to have difficulties of orientation of space (1).Thereby according to Newberg, the decreased activity observed in the parietal lobe and OAA of praying nuns and meditating monks was responsible for the transcendental states they experienced (1).

Practitioners of spiritual behavior describe the state of transcendence or 'unitary states' (1) that they experience as without any sense of space or time. A breakdown of awareness between the self and the outside is experienced. This is observed to be due to the material and structural changes in the brain and neural network during spiritual experience. Especially with decreased activity in the OAA and the parietal lobe (1), a deprivation of sensory inputs is observed (1). This neurological phenomena 'where a brain structure is cut off from sensory inputs (afferents) is known as deafferentation' (1). This describes the states of transcendence or nearness to God. Hence, the significant and complex changes in one or more specific parts of the brain and the nervous system make possible enhanced spiritual and religious experiences.

Therefore, is there any 'biological' purpose to such behavior, if spiritual behavior and experiences are linked to a material structure, the brain, and the nervous system? Are we literally made for reflection and spirituality? According to Newberg, spirituality has an evolutionary function (1). The brain was evolutionary developed for exploring spirituality and religious behavior (1). He argues that spiritual experiences like meditation, and sexual experiences such as arousal and orgasm, though unquestionably not the same experience nevertheless involves similar changes/activities in the neural networks and the brain(1).

The neurobiological workings of transcendental spiritual experience are believed to have been evolved from the evolutionary function of mating and sexual reproduction. Components of the limbic system, which are associated with the deafferentation process, are also linked with sexual experiences (1). This could explain why similar language like 'bliss', 'rapture' and 'ecstasy' are used to describe both increased spiritual experiences and pleasurable sexual experiences. (1). A study done in 1997 by Japanese researchers indicated that ritual spiritual behavior like praying and meditation can stimulate the hypothalamus of the brain (4). This can generate feelings ranging from both arousal to calmness and serenity (4).

These findings on the material nature of spiritual experiences have created a lot of controversy as well as heightened interest in the society. Many argue that by the machinery of neurobiology of faith, spirituality, religion, and 'God' is dismissed as mere chemical reactions occurring in the brain (4). In addition to the studies conducted on accomplished practitioners of spiritual behavior, observations of patients of temporal lobe epilepsy has revealed specific hyper sensitivity to religious and spiritual behavior (5). All these findings could make atheists and skeptics argue that religion and spirituality are only a dysfunction of the brain (5). However, is it possible that it is in reality a 'function' and not a dysfunction of the brain activity?

The activities of the brain and the corresponding nervous system are highly complex and there is still much ambiguity about the actual functioning of the brain. Each brain is supposed to contain approximately hundred billion neurons, which form complex and highly integrated communication networks of hundred trillion neurons (5). Some can therefore argue that the workings of the still much unexplored and misunderstood 'gray matter' is influenced by an unexplained ethereal power. There are clearly many limitations to the still infant study of biology of spirituality and faith. For instance, the association of certain spiritual behavior with brain activity does not specify why some people are more religious and spiritual than others. Nevertheless, these studies produce an important dialogue between science and religion, which can be useful to explore questions about life, behavior etc. They also advocate an important ground to think about spirituality and religion, irrespective of differences in faith. This is especially necessary in the wake of September 11th and the continuing religious unrest and conflict around the world.

WWW Sources

1) Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience,

2) Improved Physiological Functioning through Transcendental Meditation,

3) The Effects of Meditation on the Brain Activity ,

4) Searching for the God within,, a past Newsweek article.

5) The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuroscience Meet,