MU researcher dispels notion of a single ‘God spot’ in brain

Spirituality isn’t isolated to just one part of the brain, professor says.

04/19/2012 5:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:24 PM

A University of Missouri researcher has found that contrary to previous theory, there is no one “God spot” in the human brain. Rather, within the mass of gray and white matter are multiple places responsible for our spirituality.

“We found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions.

“Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”

Until now, studies have indicated that belief in a higher power is associated with decreased right parietal lobe functioning. The right parietal lobe is where our thoughts of self lie — including things as basic as “I’m hungry” or “I’m cold.”

Johnstone explained it by saying that peering at a picture of one’s self would activate the right parietal lobe. A picture of someone else activates the left parietal lobe. Johnstone said his research proved that a person with an injury to the right parietal lobe becomes less focused on self and more focused on spiritual connections.

MU researchers also determined that increased activity in the frontal lobe — the brain’s command center, where planning and coordinating are done — plays a role in spirituality, too.

While studying 20 people with traumatic injury to the right parietal lobe, the area of the brain a few inches above the right ear, Johnstone asked a series of spiritual-related questions such as how close they felt to a higher power and if they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. The participants with more significant injury showed an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power.

“This does not mean that you have to injure the brain to become more spiritual,” Johnstone said.

He also measured activity in the frontal lobe and found a correlation between increased activity in this part of the brain and increased participation in religious practices.

“This finding indicates that spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain,” Johnstone said.

“It also supports the idea that our spirituality is based in the brain rather than given by God.”

He also said that increased spirituality, after a brain injury, would manifest itself based on how a person was raised.

For example, a Christian with a brain injury is going to feel closer to God while a person raised as an atheist might feel more spiritually connected to the earth.

The study, “Right Parietal Lobe ‘Selflessness’ as the Neuropsychological Basis of Spiritual Transcendence,” was published in the International Journal of the Psychology of Religion.


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