By: Robin Nixon
December 24th, 2008
What makes us feel spiritual? It could be the quieting of a small area in our brains, a new study
The area in question — the right parietal lobe — is responsible for defining “Me,” said
researcher Brick Johnstone of Missouri University. It generates self-criticism, he said, and
guides us through physical and social terrains by constantly updating our self-knowledge: my
hand, my cocktail, my witty conversation skills, my new love interest …
People with less active Me-Definers are more likely to lead spiritual lives, reports the study in
the current issue of the journal Zygon.
Most previous research on neuro-spirituality has been based on brain scans of actively
practicing adherents (i.e. meditating monks, praying nuns) and has resulted in broad and
inconclusive findings. (Is the brain area lighting up in response to verse or spiritual
So Johnstone and colleague Bret Glass turned to the tried-and-true techniques of
neuroscience’s early days — studying brain-injured patients. The researchers tested brain
regions implicated in the previous imaging studies with exams tailored to each area’s expertise
— similar to studying the prowess of an ear with a hearing test. They then looked for
correlations between brain region performance and the subjects’ self-reported spirituality.
Among the more spiritual of the 26 subjects, the researchers pinpointed a less functional right
parietal lobe, a physical state which may translate psychologically as decreased selfawareness
The finding suggests that one core tenant of spiritual experience is selflessness, said
Johnstone, adding that he hopes the study “will help people think about spirituality in more
Spiritual outlooks have long been associated with better mental and physical health. These
benefits, Johnstone speculated, may stem from being focused less on one’s self and more on
others — a natural consequence of turning down the volume on the Me-Definer.
In addition to religious practices, other behaviors and experiences are known to hush the
Definer of Me. Appreciation of art or nature can quiet it, Johnstone said, pointing out that
people talk of “losing themselves” in a particularly beautiful song. Love, and even charity work,
can also soften the boundaries of “Me,” he said.
The greatest silencing of the Me-Definer likely happens in the deepest states of meditation or
prayer, said Johnstone, when practitioners describe feeling seamless with the entire universe.
That is, the highest point of spiritual experience occurs when “Me” completely loses its
“If you look in the Torah, the Old Testament, the New Testament, in the Koran, a lot of Sufi
writings, Buddhist writings, and Hindu writings, they all talk about selflessness,” said
We may be finding the neurological underpinnings of these writings, he said.