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December 4, 2011

Religious Brains Doing Some Good After All


Although it has been well established that all of our sensory experiences originate from our brains, many still demand that we cannot account for religious extrasensorial experiences that go beyond the limitations of our physical bodies. It is often suggested that our spiritual self is something that remains independent of our physical bodies, and one's faith is something that will remain with the dedicated few throughout their lifetime. While these views on spirituality and religiosity are still held as something so unshakeable and unquestionable as one's DNA - Italian Neuroscientist Dr. Urgesi and colleagues have uncovered yet more data that suggests a link between the very physical parts of the human brain with the creation of these extrasensorial experiences.

The study sought to find a relationship between neural activity within pathways that unify the parietal, frontal and temporal cortices with spiritual (i.e. religious) behavior and beliefs. The temporoparietal areas have already been associated with religiosity after studies on patients with frontotemporal dementia and epilepsy displayed marked increases in spiritual and transcendent beliefs not held prior to their diseased state. These spiritual and transcendent beliefs were measured using the Temperament and Character Inventory personality examination that includes a sub-scale which measures self-reported amounts of Self-Transcendence (ST) displayed by the individual. ST levels were based on responses to questions regarding one's ability to undergo self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification that goes beyond spatio-temporal dimensions of the human body i.e. experiences with God.

Dr. Urgesi and colleagues performed their study on a group of patients suffering from tumors involving the prerolandic (anterior subgroup and control group) and temporoparietal structures (anterior subgroup.) Dr. Urgesi combined examinations prior to the removal of tumors with MRI to classify participants into groups with High Grade, Low Grade, and Recurring Glioma, as well as a control group of patients suffering from Miningioma. Dr. Urgesi found that pre-surgery, patients with tumors of the posterior subgroup showed higher ST scores amongst the High Grade Glioma and Recurring Glioma group, while no differences between posterior and anterior subgroups were observed amongst the Low Grade and Meningioma groups prior to surgery.

Examinations after the removal of the tumors inferred varying degrees of lesions to the cortical structures of the participants. Dr. Urgesi and his colleague s primary finding was that the ST values of patients with a Low-Grade glioma removal of the posterior subset, showed unusually rapid and long lasting changes in their ST scores post surgery. The same was found in the High Grade and Recurring glioma posterior subgroups. As expected, removal of tumors from non-cortical structures inferred no changes in ST values amongst participants of the Meningioma or anterior groups . Dr. Urgesi suggests that the damaged posterior parietal areas may contribute to altered spiritual beliefs and behaviors. Luckily for those with high ST marks, follow up interviews showed that patients with anterior lesions showed no increase in ST but also showed much less acceptance of their grim conditions than did the posterior /high ST group.

The implications of these findings extend far beyond religious views though, as Dr. Urgesi claims that if such steadfast beliefs and behaviors towards religion and spirituality can be rapidly and drastically altered from mild lesions sustained after brain surgery, then further research into lesion induced personality changes may shed light on other personality disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

So just how dependent on the physical body are these steadfast personality traits, moral views, and religious beliefs when they can be altered simply by changing the wirings within our brain? Maybe it seems that our seemingly concrete religious and moral views that we stand beside throughout our lives are more trivial than we give credit to. Our unshakeable views of the world don t seem to be so deep-seated after all! How rapidly may I covert to Islam or Christianity the next time I hit my head on the concrete? I guess I will just have to wait to find out... but luckily, my lesion induced changes in my circuitry may help me to better cope with the impending doom that my very damaged brain has brought me in the first place.

Urgesi, Cosimo , Salvatore M. Aglioti, Franco Fabbro, and Miran Skrap. "The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence." Neuron 65 (2010): 309-319. Print.
Posted by      Tuttle J. at 5:02 PM MST
Tags: religion

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