MASLOW – Spiritual Transcendence (Part 2)

PREVIOUS:Spiritual Transcendence #1

: Of 2 minds – Is the brain wired for faith? (Catholic focus)


REVIEW: Transcendence is identified as an emotional & mental connection with a Higher Power, or as experiencing cosmic unity

RESEARCH: For decades scientists studying the brain mainly focused on mental illness or physical injuries. Now advances in Neuroscience are beginning to identify  complex mental processes & brain activity. EXPs:
▪︎ Scans of normal vs Alzheimer’s brains —->
▪︎ The effect of child abuse & PTSD, which parts respond to music… where emotions, memory, facial recognition show up…. ALSO,
▪︎ Some spiritual moments are tightly linked to “fight-or-flight” regions related to survival impulses

Researchers are also finding a neuro-psychological basis for spirituality, & like any emotionally intense human experience, it involve multiple brain systems. EXP:
When Carmelite nuns were asked to remember their most intense mystical experience (bliss), neuro-imaging noted activity in their:
— RIGHT medial orbito-frontal cortex, middle temporal cortex, caudate, inferior & superior parietal lobules
— LEFT medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobule, insula, caudate, brainstem.

▪︎ Other studies found that when nuns meditated on a Bible verse – their language regions lit up, & for monks focusing on a sacred object, it was the visual areas.

▶︎ Scientists at Columbia & Yale believe there’s a universal, cognitive (mental) basis for spirituality – as opposed to cultural grounding. They chose to do a study that “sought to directly examine spiritual experiences, particularly when using a broader, modern definition that may be independent of religiousness.”

Participating psychiatrist Marc Potenza stated that finding “the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience, & for recovery from mental health & addictions.”
In this study (published 2018) participants were given fMRI scans while listening to recordings based on their personal spiritual experiences. All of them showed changes in the parietal cortex, specifically less brain activity in the left inferior parietal lobule, which minimized sensation, attention, spatial orientation & language – differing from responses to other forms of relaxation.

This shift may explain how spiritual experiences can reduce or even eliminated altogether the barrier between oneself & others. It showed that transcendence is a real, measurable phenomenon, whether it involves communion with God (church), nature (trees), or humanity (at a music concert, sports stadium)….. Although we definitely need good boundaries for protection & to manage reality, removing the barrier every so often is also valuable.

▶︎ Brick Johnstone Ph.D (with the interdisciplinary faculty at U of Missouri) asks: “What is it about humans that allows us to experience Spiritual Transcendence?”
answer: “Spiritual experiences are based on the neuro-psychological process of “selflessness.” 

It’s known that the precuneus portion of the parietal lobes on both sides of the brain are involved in episodic memory, visuo-spatial processing, & aspects of consciousness. This area defines & focuses ‘self-orientation‘.
when a person looks at a picture of themself, the right parietal lobe (RPL) lights up, seen with the help of electrodes placed on the scalp.

▪︎ Studies of Buddhist monks in meditation or Franciscan nuns deep in prayer – showed a minimization of their RPL.
▪︎ Andrew Newberg (U of PA) discovered that the frontal lobe, associated with focus & concentration, lights up at the same time as the parietal lobe, integrating sensory info, goes dim. (Meditation Scans)

▪︎ Reports of brain injuries at U of Chicago & of tumor patients in Italy showed that injury to the RPL is associated with increased reports of an altered state of consciousness. Therefore, when that part is suppressed, by injury or during religious rituals, we focus less on the Self as a separate entity, making it easier to notice things outside & beyond oneself.

This does not mean one must be brain-damaged to have such experiences, nor that there’s one spot in the brain that makes us believe in God. Rather, both religious practices & injuries/ disorders can minimize a focus on the self, increasing spiritual transcendence.
Research does not claim to know spiritual truths, but it does show how the brain allows for different kinds of spiritual experiences – what Christians call God, Buddhists Nirvana, & atheists being connected to the earth.

NEXT: MODERN Pyramid #1

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