A new study led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has attempted to map spirituality and religiosity, finding that spiritual acceptance can be located in a specific brain circuit .
This brain circuit focuses on the central gray matter or periaqueductal gray matter (PAG), which is the gray matter that surrounds the cerebral aqueduct in the midbrain, a region of the brainstem that has been involved in numerous functions, such as conditioning of the brain. fear, pain modulation, altruistic behaviors and unconditional love.
Injury network mapping
To conduct their study, they used a technique called injury network mapping that allows researchers to map complex human behaviors into specific brain circuits, based on the location of brain injuries in patients. The team took advantage of a previously published data set that included 88 neurosurgical patients undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. The locations of the lesions were distributed throughout the brain .
Patients completed a survey that included questions about spiritual acceptance before and after surgery. The team validated their results using a second data set comprised of more than 100 patients with penetrating head injury injuries during combat during the Vietnam War. These participants also completed questionnaires that included questions about religiosity, such as, "Do you consider yourself a religious person? Yes or No?" .
Of the 88 neurosurgical patients, 30 showed a decrease in self-reported spiritual belief before and after neurosurgical resection of the brain tumor, 29 showed an increase, and 29 showed no change. Using injury network mapping, the team found that self-reported spirituality was mapped to a specific brain circuit focused on the PAG. The circuit included positive nodes and negative nodes: injuries that disrupted these respective nodes decreased or increased self-reported spiritual beliefs .
The results on religiosity from the second data set were in line with these findings. Additionally, in a review of the scientific literature, the researchers found several case reports of patients becoming hyperreligious after experiencing brain injuries that affected negative nodes in the circuit.
This neurobiological basis, then, could incline certain people to a more magical, superstitious thinking, the kind that confuses correlation and causality or seeks to fill in knowledge gaps with myths. Those who finally hire the services of pseudoscientists such as the following:
Still, to understand the generalizability of their results, they would need to replicate their study across many backgrounds . The team is also interested in untangling religiosity and spirituality to understand the brain circuits that may be creating differences.