Scientists say they've linked spirituality with a surprising brain circuit

A new study from Brigham and Women's Hospital claims to have linked spirituality with a specific brain circuit, noting that such tendencies seem to be "deeply woven into our neuro-fabric." The findings were made possible by using lesions in patients' brains to map behaviors with specific brain circuits, as well as survey data from patients.

The study involved 88 neurosurgical patients who needed brain surgery to remove tumors located in various parts of the brain. The patients were surveyed about their spiritual acceptance before their respective surgeries and again afterward. The group was split nearly evenly between those who became less spiritual after surgery, those who became more spiritual, and those who experienced no change.

Based on the data, including where the brain lesions were located, the study linked a particular brain circuit in the periaqueductal gray (PAG) brainstem region with spiritual acceptance and religiosity. Similar changes in spirituality were found in cases where lesions intersected with positive and negative parts of the circuit.

The researchers are careful to note that the public shouldn't "over-interpret" the study to mean things it doesn't. The study notes that details about the patients' potentially religious upbringing were lacking, for example, and the patients all came from cultures where Christianity is the dominant religion.

Additional research into the topic is necessary, but the findings provide interesting insights regardless, with the study's corresponding author Michael Ferguson, Ph.D., explaining:

Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric. We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centered in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain.