The predisposition of human beings toward spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors is measured by a supposedly stable personality trait called self-transcendence. Although a few neuroimaging studies suggest that neural activation of a large fronto-parieto-temporal network may underpin a variety of spiritual experiences, information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking. Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence. Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness. These results hint at the active, crucial role of left and right parietal systems in determining self-transcendence and cast new light on the neurobiological bases of altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors in neurological and mental disorders.
This seems part of the general phenomenon that neurological findings confirm what you know from more conventional personal experience. Drugs, deprivation (e.g., fasting) and traumatic personal events seem to push people toward this state of “self-transcendence” quite often. If Hóng Xiùquán had managed to pass his civil service examination, perhaps the decline of the Qing dynasty in the 19th century would have been a bit less traumatic.
I assume that susceptibility to self-transcendence has something of a genetic component through the heritability of personality. There have been atheists with a materialist world-view who I have met who seem emotionally fragile to me, and I generally assume that they’ll become religious later in life because of some spiritual experience. Quite often I later find out that they’ve had exactly such a first person experience, and are religiously devout. In contrast, others (a smaller number in my estimation) lose faith and become much more concrete and irreligious in their orientation in the face of trauma or distress. A combination of circumstance & predisposition then leads to very different behavioral phenotypes, which I assume are ultimately conditioned on differences in initial hardwiring.
Citation: Neuron, Volume 65, Issue 3, 309-319, 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.026