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Brain Activity Altered during Religious Experience

A study in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science finds that religious experience is associated with decreased activity in the brain's right parietal lobe. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

In America there’s a feeling of Christmas. But that’s not the only winter holiday going on. Jews are lighting Hanukkah candles, Muslims recently feasted on Eid al-Adha, and pagans celebrated the solstice. So it’s a good time for researchers to consider spirituality—from a scientific point of view.

One experience central to major religions around the world is that of transcendence, the idea of almost losing a sense of self to the feeling that there’s something bigger out there. Now scientists at the University of Missouri say they’ve located that experience in our brains. All the people studied, from Buddhist monks in meditation to Francescan nuns in prayer, experience this transcendence. And they all have decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain. That area has to do with senses such as orienting yourself in the space around you. The study was published in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science.

Interestingly, people with injuries to the right parietal lobe report increased levels of spiritual experiences. The researchers are quick to say that this connection doesn’t minimize the role of religion, and that religious or spiritual experiences might decrease activity in that region and thus increase that special feeling of transcendence. Just in time for the holidays.

—Cynthia Graber 

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