“Spirituality” isn’t some vague experience that exists only in the minds of those who claim to experience it. It occurs in their brains, too – and its effects are both palpable and profound, according to a new imaging study published this week in the journal Cerebral Cortex by Teachers College psychologist Lisa Miller and colleagues at Yale University and the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
For the past 20 years, Miller, former Director of TC’s Clinical Psychology program and now Founding Director of the College’s Spiritualty Mind Body Institute (hailed by The New York Times as the first Ivy League program in spirituality and psychology), has methodically identified the biology of how the regular practice of spirituality – a term she defines as “a transcendent experience of something bigger than oneself”– can protect and enhance mental health and wellbeing. In brain-imaging studies conducted in the United States, China, India and Brazil, Miller’s lab has observed a thickening of the prefrontal cortex in people who regularly practice some kind of faith or spirituality, versus a cortical thinning in people with chronic depression. Miller, Editor of the Oxford University Press Handbook of Psychology & Spirituality and Editor-in-Chief the American Psychological Association journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice, has gone so far as to declare that spirituality and depression are “two sides of the same coin.”
However, the new study – titled “Neural Correlates of Personalized Spiritual Experiences” (subscription required) – represents a significant advance on three counts.
First, by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to conduct brain scans while participants were recalling personal spiritual experiences, Miller and her team were able to identify, in real time, brain regions – in particular, a cortical area called the left inferior parietal lobe (IPL), which is involved in awareness of self and others – that “may contribute importantly to perceptual processing and self-other representations during spiritual experiences.”
Second, by using a guided imagery exercise that enabled participants to describe experiences that met their own definitions of “spiritual,” the study was able to show that the same brain regions were principally involved regardless of how spirituality was defined. The experiences the participants described included “a two-way relationship with a higher power, a felt sense of oneness in nature by the ocean or atop a mountain, being in a zone of intense physical activity (such as sports or yoga), sudden awareness, bodily felt connectivity or buoyancy, meditation or prayer” – a range that the researchers describe as consistent with “a broader, modern definition of spirituality that may be independent of religiousness.” Food, sexual or drug-related scenarios were not included in the study.
And third, by contrasting brain activity during participants’ accounts of spiritual experiences with their descriptions of stressful or neutral experiences, the researchers were able to further establish a unique “brain signature” for spiritual experience. Specifically, the IPL, which is part of a broader brain region associated with sensory and emotional processing, showed reduced activity when participants described their spiritual experiences, compared with activity when they spoke of stressful or neutral experiences – a finding consistent with Miller’s previous work showing that spiritual experiences “buffer the effects of stress on mental health.”
The authors note that their study was small, with just 27 participants, all of whom were younger, healthy and English-speaking. Still, the group reflected a range of religious traditions.
“These results demonstrate neural mechanisms underlying spiritual experience across diverse traditions and perspectives,” write Miller and her colleagues. “Continuing to build our empirical understanding of how spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain and the future extension of similar studies to clinical populations could help facilitate the judicious integration of spirituality into treatment and prevention in areas of mental health conditions.”
Miller is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and has served as President of the APA’s 2,600-member Division of Psychology of Religion. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (Picador, 2016).