Where in the brain does God reside? Does spiritual experience originate in the mind? Such questions are nearly unanswerable, but scientists are beginning to paint a clearer picture of what happens inside our brains during moments of spiritual insight. We are beginning to get a better glimpse of physical mechanism behind some of our most profound and transcendent revelations, and Universal Life Church ministers can benefit from this newfound knowledge.
A topic has been studied closely by Brian Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions at the University of Missouri. Researchers have been trying unsuccessfully to find a “God spot” in the brain, but new evidence suggests the reality is a bit more complicated, and many ministers who became ordained online will be curious to know the latest findings. “We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain”. Rather, Johnstone’s studies show, spiritual experience is a complex phenomenon that involves many different areas of the brain as well as decreased activity in a brain region called the right parietal lobe.
Johnstone arrived at his conclusion by examining brain injury victims. He looked at people with brain injuries affecting the right parietal lobe and discovered that this region showed reduced activity. He also surveyed these individuals on characteristics of spirituality, and they reported feeling a greater connection to a divine force. A similar brain state has been found in Buddhist meditators and Francisco nuns with normal brain functions (and probably exists in some nondenominational wedding ministers, too). The right parietal lobe, Johnstone explains, is involved in self-orientation, and when activity in this region is compromised, people experience decreased focus on the self and a greater connection with others, and with a higher force. Consequently, Johnstone concluded that reduced activity in this brain region is linked with increased feelings of spiritual experiences.
But Johnstone’s findings do not prove that decreased activity in the right parietal lobe causes spiritual experience. According to The Huffington Post, “[t]he research does not make claims about spiritual truths, but demonstrates the way that the brain allows for different kinds of spiritual experiences”, depending on one’s religious (or nonreligious) worldview. Indeed, emerging research is challenging the reductive materialist paradigm underpinning the view that consciousness is a by-product of brain activity. In his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of Near-Death Experience, Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel makes a compelling case for a non-material basis for consciousness, citing new research in quantum physics as well as cases like that of Pamela Reynolds, in which a brain-dead person experienced lucid consciousness. Australian philosopher David Chalmers–an atheist–also challenges the materialist model in his book The Character of Consciousness.
Johnstone’s research may not answer whether the brain produces spiritual experience, or merely mediates it, but it does seem to show that the brain plays a role. As ULC ministers, we should embrace the work of scientists like Johnstone and resist urges to reject it outright like so many anti-intellectual philistines populating the American social and political landscape do; science and spirituality are not necessarily one another’s enemies, and the world would be a better place if this notion were accepted by all. Scientific enquiry may never fully explain spirituality, but it could go a long way in doing so.