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The Scientific Approach: A Spiritual Journey

Schmeltz's picture

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 The Scientific Approach: A Spiritual Journey


There have been moments in my life where I have experienced an inexplicable sense of harmony, fulfillment, inner peace, and enlightenment.  In this moment, I feel a sense of total completeness, but have no solid explanation for this transient, so-called spiritual experience.  Throughout my human experience, I have struggled to determine the source of my own spirituality.  At times, the quest to discover the underlying elements inducing my spiritual experiences feels like a fruitless endeavor; however, I continue searching for explanations to address this question of spirituality to better comprehend myself and how I interact with this world.  I believe that the attempt to make sense of ourselves in this world is an integral, even innate component, of each individual human experience.  Because each human experience is unique, various explanations to address the question of spirituality have surfaced.  However, there still exists no evidence to fully account for the wide array of spiritual phenomena.


I have explored and identified four explanations accounting for spirituality.  The first explanation, one that I initially found attractive, is the idea that spirituality is distinct from the brain and that it exists in some non-material form – a form that is typically labeled as a soul.  Before giving the origins of spirituality heavy thought, I took refuge in this explanation because it was comforting.  It assisted me in understanding what I did not understand, namely that inexplicable harmonious feeling my words can never seem to accurately describe.  Oftentimes, my spiritual experiences suggest to me that there is something beyond my material self in the form of an intangible, mystical, and powerful non-material soul.  The idea that this soul is the part of me that will persist indefinitely is appealing because I would like to think that all of me does not die with my nervous system; however, the more rational, less romantic, part of my brain leads me to believe that this explanation does not suffice. 


The second explanation, one that surfaced while exploring Emily Dickinson's poem, “The Brain is Wider than the Sky”, is the idea that the brain is wide enough to accommodate spirituality.  In my response to this poem and other Dickinson works, I suggested that the brain has a vacancy allotted for the insertion of a spiritual component, in this case a soul.  Because of the brain's capacity to construct everything is this world, even our own sense of self, I claimed that the brain also had the capacity to allow for the insertion of spirituality (3).  However, in a reassessment of my response, I realize that the brain not only has the capacity for spirituality, but it additionally has the capacity to construct spirituality.  Thus, spirituality is not inserted, but rather emerges from the brain. 

In the field of cognitive and affective neuroscience, many researchers have become increasingly interested in determining how brain activity correlates with spirituality.  The growing consensus in the neuroscience community is that humans have a predisposition toward spiritual feeling, thinking, and behavior.  Some researchers have sought to measure spiritual phenomena by a presumably stable personality trait referred to as self-transcendence (ST).  Researches in Italy have began to explore the neural underpinnings correlating to spiritual experiences and have sought to measure observable changes of self-awareness that accompany the spiritual epiphanies of human beings.  These epiphanies may include a detachment from current body perceptions, altered states of consciousness and enlightenment, and feelings of a strong connection of the self with the universe.  Changes in spiritual activity were observed through analysis of before and after ST scores of patients undergoing removal of brain glioma (cancer affecting the neural brain tissue) combined with advanced lesion-mapping procedures.  In summary, the research suggests that removing a specific part of the brain may induce spiritual experiences.  Further, based on their series of observations, the researchers purport that spiritual thinking arises in, or is limited by, specific brain regions (7). 


Three to seven days post surgery, patients that had tumors removed from the posterior part of the brain, in the parietal cortex, reported feelings that suggested a heightened ST score.  Patients with tumors removed from the frontal regions of the brain experienced no observable changes in ST.  The authors pinpointed two regions of the brain – the left inferior parietal lobe and the right angular gyrus – that when damaged, seemed to generate an increase in spirituality.  Interestingly enough, these regions located at the back of the brain are associated with how human beings perceive their bodies in spatial relation to the external world.  The researchers suggest that their findings support the reported experience of detachment from the body during spiritual moments (8).

This study, though interesting, is somewhat problematic due the measurement of ST.  The investigators behind this study measured three components of ST: losing oneself in the moment, feeling connected to nature and other people, and believing in a higher power.  Measuring ST is difficult because the concept is so elusive and different people have different nervous systems, which leads to different interpretations and meanings of the world (8).  Determining a scientific basis of spirituality by attempting to locate specific brain regions that correlate to spiritual experiences is insightful, though I do not believe that spirituality will ever be entirely localized.


Dean H. Hamer, a behavioral geneticist at the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, suggests that spirituality is a component of human nature.  He believes that there exists a “universal penchant for spiritual fulfillment” and that this explains the great diversity of religions present throughout the world.  Hamer believes that human beings have an innate and unique capacity for spirituality and that the quest to reach out beyond oneself is an integral piece of the human makeup and experience.  It seems appropriate to apply the underlying idea that circuits of neurons have the property of generating patterns in the context of spirituality.  Henceforth, I will use generalized central pattern generators (GCPGs) in order to explain how central pattern generators (CPGs) may come into play in the processes underlying spirituality.  Hamer suggests that our genes predispose us to believe, but they do not code for particular beliefs.  This is synonymous to the capacity for language.  Humans are predisposed to speak, but the language acquired is learned rather than inherited.  When we are born we have CPGs embedded in our nervous systems for language.  An additional array of experience determines the particular language we will speak.  Similarly, it seems reasonable that we have GCPGs throughout our nervous systems that have the capacity for spirituality.  Thus, our interaction with this world, in part, determines our sense of spirituality.  Hamer suggests that humans cannot rid themselves of the genetic propensity to be spiritual, yet people can modify and develop their GCPGs through different modes such as yoga, meditation, prayer, music, writing, art, and religion (1).  I would add science to this list.  Through these avenues, human beings have the ability to adjust the GCPGs embedded in their nervous systems and the corollary discharge signaling coordinating these circuits of neurons.  This brings me to the fourth explanation of spiritual experience.  


Suppose that humans do in fact have this predisposition for spirituality.  As mentioned, spiritual experience is partially a result of what is going on in our environment and the experience of connection to this environment – the natural world.  Sometimes an individual reports feeling that they have come into union with something deeper and greater than oneself during a spiritual experience.  Perhaps this experience occurs due to an altered state of consciousness triggered by an interaction between GCPGs and something beyond the natural world, be it a metaphysical or supernatural world (4).  While there is always room for speculation, a scientist is usually most concerned with exploring the natural world and the way in which the human brain constructs this world.  


Everyone inhabits their own reality and universe because every human brain constructs its own reality and universe.  One's experience of oneself and the universe is constantly being constructed and there is no way of determining whether or not two people are sharing the same experience.  Thus, there is no way of determining whether or not two people are experiencing the same spiritual experience.  While there may exist some commonality amongst human beings in our brain design, and while we each have an evolution of spirituality throughout our human experience, our nervous systems are never acting identically.  Because our brains are unique and because we each define spirituality on our own terms, how is it possible to ever localize its source to one particular brain region?


Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, explores the question of spirituality and proclaims that all of our spiritual experiences may be explained through material means.  The field of neurotheology asserts that brain activity is wholly responsible for the self-transcendent moments human beings experience (2).  Newberg is unlike other researchers in that he does not seek to limit spirituality to one region in the brain.  Instead, he acknowledges that many regions of the brain must interact in order to generate the full range of spiritual phenomena (5).  In other words, spirituality is the resultant of a very complex and highly integrated corollary discharge signaling network.  I appreciate his perspective and his recognition of the uniqueness and complexity of each individual spiritual experience.  Additionally, I appreciate his interest in applying this research to human health in order to enhance our psychological and physical states (6).  More generally, he believes that increased insight into spirituality through a scientific approach may have implications for improving our human experience.


So, have I answered the question of spirituality?  Have I discovered the source of my own spirituality?   To my frustration, I have not.  So, where has this investigation led me?  Bottom line, I claim that spirituality is not localizable.  I claim that the source of spirituality is in the brain and that corollary discharge signaling coordinates these circuits of neurons to induce a sense of spirituality or self-transcendence.  Perhaps this sense of spirituality is achieved through coherence and balance between the corollary discharge signals connecting the GCPGs.  In the context of motor activity, we established that CPGs have the ability to be tuned, not only physically, but mentally.  I would surmise that GCPGs also have the ability to be physically and mentally tweaked in order to generate increased or changed spiritual experience.  If science can determine, even partially, the processes underlying spirituality, then human beings may gain increased understanding of our human experience including our interactions with this world and the spiritual search that many of us find ourselves inclined to fulfill.  I believe that we should not have opposition to exploring the question of spirituality from a scientific approach, for science, in a sense, is a spiritual endeavor.  Human beings are programmed to search for answers.  Scientist or not, many, if not all of us, are striving to find a satisfying solution to explain our sense of spirituality.  The search, I think, should be about “getting it less wrong”, rather than locating the right spiritual site in the brain.  My guess is that there are commonalities in each human brain that correlate with spiritual activity.  Finding these commonalties is significant, yet we must always recognize the unique interactions comprising each human nervous system that engender unique spiritual phenomena.  The task to explore spirituality from a scientific approach is not a futile endeavor, but itself a spiritual journey.    




1) Broadway, Bill. (2004, November 14). “Is the Capacity for Spirituality Determined by Brain Chemistry?” (Review of book The God Gene). The Washington Post. 30 Mar 2010. Retrieved from <>.

2) Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. “The God choice”.  USA Today. 22 Jun 2009. 30 Mar 2010. Retrieved from <>.

3) Johnson, Tessa. “Emily Dickinson: A Spiritual Materialist.” Serendip. 23 Feb 2010. Retrieved from </exchange/node/6376>. 

4) Laszlo, Ervin. “The Quantum Brain, Spirituality, And the Mind of God”. The Huffington Post. 24 Mar 2010. 30 Mar 2010. Retrieved from <>.

5) Newberg, Andrew, MD. Questions and Answers. 30 Mar 2010. Retrieved from <>.

6) Newberg, Andrew B. and Lee, Bruce Y. The Neuroscientific Study of Religious and Spiritual Phenomena: Or Why God Doesn't use Biostatistics. Zygon, Vol. 20, No. 2. June 2005. Retrieved from <>. 

7) Urgesi, Cosimo, et al. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence”. Neuron 65, pp. 309-319. 11 Feb 2010. Retrieved from  <>.

8) Weaver, Janelle. “Brain Surgery boosts Spirituality”. Nature News. 10 Feb 2010. 30 Mar 2010. Retrieved from <>.  





Paul Grobstein's picture

spirituality and the brain: out there or in here?

Glad to see you continuing this exploration.  Do think, contra Spiritual Blog below, that there are useful things to be gained from refusing to set the "scientific" and the "spiritual" in opposition, that it can be a "spiritual journey" as well as a scientific one. 

Like too the notion that the "spiritual" may have to with what's "inside" rather than "outside," that its a state of internal "oneness" rather than oneness with some special outside thing.  For more along these lines, see "oceanic feelings," "interconnected vastness," and "The taoist story teller."

Spiritual Blog's picture

Science and spirituality

Trying to "understand" spiritual, using linear concepts of the contemporary science is not going to succeed.
After all, how a chunk of the grey matter, consisting mainly water and fat, could grasp the metaphysical?

As for the science... It has proven to be following exactly what you've said: '"The search, I think, should be about “getting it less wrong”".
The proof? Here it is:
"We know everything about this particle. The only thing we don't know is if it exists. And if it does not exist, we are bound to find something that is very much like it." said in March 2010, European Center for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) Director-General Rolf Heuer, a German physicist who took over at CERN 14 months ago.

Yet, there are scientists who see spirituality for what it truly is.
I quote from The Encyclopedia Britannica: “Firmly denying atheism, Einstein expressed a belief in "God who reveals himself in the harmony of what exists."
This actually motivated his interest in science, as he once remarked to a young physicist: "I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details."

As for the mention: "Scientist have found the source of enlightenment?" I thank God that this sort of scientists isolate themselves well enough form the body of knowledge presented to the serious spiritual worker. Confusion abounds, as it is...