Researchers Probe Direct Link Between Brain Activity, Spirituality

( [email protected] ) Feb 12, 2010 01:27 PM EST

Brain surgery patients who have had tumors removed from the back part of their brain were more likely demonstrate greater spirituality after the operation than those who had tumors removed from the frontal area of their brain, according to researchers behind a new study.

Though past neuroimaging studies have linked activity within a large network in the brain that connects the outer areas of the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes with spiritual experiences, information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking, says lead study author Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy.

So, with the aim of making a direct link between brain activity and spirituality, Urgesi and his colleagues interviewed 88 people with brain tumors of various severities before and after their surgeries, and later mapped the exact area of the brain that was operated on.

What the researchers found was that those patients who had operations performed on the left and right posterior parietal regions of the brain were significantly more likely to be rated as being more spiritual after their surgery than those patients whose operations were performed on other areas of the brain.

"Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness,” commented Urgesi.

“Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors," he added.

For their study, researchers determined the level of spirituality of the patients by a personality trait called self-transcendence (ST), which is thought to be a measure of spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors in humans. According to the researchers, ST reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one's self as an integral part of the universe as a whole.

To measure ST, patients were given a number of true-or-false statements to relate with such as "I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation," "I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism," and "I got lost in the moment and detached from time."

People who answered “yes” to such questions scored highly for ST.

Aside from induced spirituality, Urgesi said he noticed from his team's study differences in the way the patients dealt with their illnesses following their surgeries.

Those who had lost posterior parietal tissue, for example, tended to be less troubled by their cancers and their own mortality. Those who had had their anterior portion removed, meanwhile, tended to react more bitterly.

"They could not accept it," Urgesi stated.

After the conclusion of the study, Dr. Salvatore M. Aglioti from Sapienza University of Rome suggested that the results of their research may lead to new strategies for treating some forms of mental illness.

"If a stable personality trait like ST can undergo fast changes as a consequence of brain lesions, it would indicate that at least some personality dimensions may be modified by influencing neural activity in specific areas," he stated.

"Perhaps novel approaches aimed at modulating neural activity might ultimately pave the way to new treatments of personality disorders," Aglioti added.

One such approach could be Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive technique that temporarily changes neural activity in a specific region.

Urgesi has expressed interest in trying to inactivate parietal regions in healthy subjects using TMS to see if he can induce immediate changes in self-transcendence.

In future studies, Urgesi would also like to measure other aspects of spirituality and determine how long changes in spirituality last in patients.

The results of his team's latest study appear in the Feb. 11 issue of the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press.