Gene Expression

Brain damage = transcendence

The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence:

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

Comments

  1. #1 Doug
    February 11, 2010

    That is interesting. I sustained some brain damage as a child in a traffic accident and as a result I have no sense of smell. I have always doubted religion even though I was fully indoctrinated into the baptist church. I didn’t stop believing as much as I simply became aware that I did not believe. I really have a hard time understanding how so many people can accept what seems clearly fiction. I’ve often wondered if there may be a biological factor. If I’m wrong, I wonder if I’ll get a free pass (actually I don’t wonder that at all).

  2. #2 omar
    February 11, 2010

    Apropos your reference to the Taiping rebellion. Am I the only one or does China’s recent (as in 200 years) history cause you to wonder if they would have been better off “converting” to Christianity or Islam a few hundred years ago? They seem to have operated with insufficient background brainwashing..
    And does it look like American evangelicals are going to correct that oversight in the next few decades? Or is it now possible to make do without converting most of your population to one of the “great monotheisms”? (Japan being the exception and India being, well, India). I have heard figures like 100 million Christian converts in China already..are these claims exaggerated?

  3. #3 anna
    February 11, 2010

    I apologize in advance for not having a link handy, but this topic puts me in mind of the neoroscientist who herself experienced a brain lesion and subsequent personality change, rendering her more sensitive, emotional and “happy”.

    I think she was profiled in the NYTimes at some point if I’m not mistaken.

  4. #4 razib
    February 11, 2010

    I have heard figures like 100 million Christian converts in China already..are these claims exaggerated?

    yes. they’re exaggerated from what what i’ve seen digging around.

  5. #5 Steve
    February 11, 2010

    NPR did an extremely interesting series a while back about a similar topic. Here is the link:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=110997741

    Pretty fascinating stuff.

  6. #6 video izle
    February 11, 2010

    That is interesting. I sustained some brain damage as a child in a traffic accident and as a result I have no sense of smell. I have always doubted religion even though I was fully indoctrinated into the baptist church

  7. #7 yogi-one
    February 12, 2010

    Re #3 Anna (and everyone)- here’s the link you need:
    TED Talks Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight
    http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

    Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions — motion, speech, self-awareness — shut down one by one. An astonishing story.

    Deep meditation, certain drugs such as LSD combined with deep meditation, and certain kinds of experiences that simply shock you and block your reasoning faculties can induce what she calls a left-brain shutdown.

    There are indeed areas of the brain associated with the task of identifying our bodies as separate, and keeping the ongoing “chatter” of self-talk, and the business of categorizing, labeling, and comparing and sorting present experience to what we have stored in memory.

    When these functions are blocked, experience appears as a single, present-moment only rush that cannot be labeled or interpreted – and due, to loss of sense of time, both instantaneous and eternal. The brain is not associating your awareness with a physical locus as it usually does, so it feels expansive and bodiless.

    What’s interesting about this talk is that although she is a scientist, and could talk about it completetly as a physically-caused experience, she still was changed by it toward being more “spiritually” (for lack of a better word) inclined.

    Another factor that gets mixed up in these discussions is the confluence of personal spiritual experience and organized religion. The two are not the same, and nowadays we are seeing more and more people who identify themselves as spiritually inclined, but reject membership in any kind of religious organization.

    Having this kind of experience in which you temporarily feel free from body, time, and mind-chatter constraints is intensely personal, despite the sense of expansiveness.

    People have been having these kinds of experiences all along, of course, and it gives rise to traditions like the Indian sannyasins who seek spiritual experience by dropping out of the regular society, and doing intensive meditation practice entirely alone, often in environments such as caves that help seal off external stimuli, or even practicing denial to the body in the hopes of triggering a transcendent experience.

    You can see where this is all leading. One day, the science will enable people to simply take a break from their everyday routines, safely trigger the “right-brain experince” for a short while, then resume normal life with a refreshed perspective.

    I’d like also to note that I have seen various types of integration of this kind of experience in people. People that become religiously devout usually have some deep religious social conditioning before they have the experience.

    Note that Jill did not come out of the experience proclaiming that God exists. This is a crucial point: you can have transcendent experience and still be an athiest, particularly if that’s what you were before the experience. The experience itself eventually becomes labeled and interpreted by the person after-the-fact. So if you had a prior belief in God, the right-brain experience may supply “proof” for you of the existence of God. But that’s a matter of personal interpretation. An athiest may simply interpret it as another type of experience that humans are capable of having due to the structures of their brain and nervous systems.

  8. #8 Sorcha
    February 12, 2010

    “Spiritual experiences” tend to get classified as religious, but according to at least one study (Marghanita Laski 1961) they also happen to agnostics or atheists.

    I’m a skeptical type, but I’ve had few experiences that I’d count as “self-transcendent”. For example, once I was alone in my back garden looking at the stars and for a short while (couldn’t tell you the exact length of time) the boundary between me and the world around me appear to temporarily dissolve, I was “at one with the universe” and felt a strange kind of flowing peace. I feel a bit embarrassed using such “new-agey” language, but that’s honestly the closest I can get to describing it.

    I’m prepared to believe it was the result of some weird body chemistry (although I wasn’t on drugs). I suppose you could say it was “unreal”, but maybe it’s just as “unreal” to see ourselves as separate from the world around us and to think of time as happening in discrete units. I’d love to know if anyone else out there has had similar experiences, and how do you deal with them if you have no religious framework to slot them into?

  9. #9 Gene Bryan Johnson
    February 17, 2010

    “The Really Big Questions” http://www.trbq.org has an episode called “Can Science Explain Why We Believe.” You should find it to be quite an interesting discussion.

  10. #10 Duane
    March 1, 2010

    I see a failure to distinguish spirituality from religion. For me spirituality has nothing to do with religion. Spirituality is an attempt to expand the boundaries of care and concern beyond yourself—something a very evolved brain may well help us do.

    I consider myself very spiritual although damn close to an atheist. For me spirituality isn’t how those boundaries expand, it is that they do.

  11. #11 ngong
    March 2, 2010

    I suppose you could say it was “unreal”, but maybe it’s just as “unreal” to see ourselves as separate from the world around us and to think of time as happening in discrete units.

    Yeah, it’s weird how the ego-centered existence is supposed to be the real one for so many folks who identify as atheists.

    Likewise, if some sort of brain damage leads to “self-transcendence”, it’s taken to be proof of the illusoriness of the experience. But if the “damage” shuts down obsessive survival-oriented, discursive, egoistic circuitry, isn’t it possible that the subject might experience the world in a less illusory manner?

  12. #12 IanW
    March 2, 2010

    I love the title!

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.