top of page

Is God in the Brain? Insights from Neuroscience

Beth Bradford

Jul 18, 2023

Research shows that we experience transcendence when a part of the brain is less active.

For centuries, the concept of spirituality has captivated human minds, delving into the realm of the intangible and the profound. What drives our spiritual experiences? Are they purely matters of faith and belief, or can they be explained through the intricate workings of our brain? In a 2012 study in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, researchers from University of Missouri have delved into the enigmatic relationship between spirituality and the brain, shedding new light on the neural mechanisms that underpin our transcendent experiences.

The study aimed to explore how the right parietal lobe, a region known for its role in defining the self, may be linked to spiritual transcendence. To examine this connection, they meticulously analyzed data from 20 patients with brain injuries, measuring their spirituality using both the INSPIRIT scale and the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality (BMMRS).

The findings of the study were nothing short of fascinating. The researchers discovered a compelling correlation between decreased functioning of the right parietal lobe and heightened levels of spiritual transcendence. Remarkably, this association held true across both the INSPIRIT scale and the BMMRS spirituality subscales. Essentially, when the right parietal lobe's activity decreased, individuals exhibited a remarkable capacity for selflessness and a diminished focus on the self, which facilitated their spiritual transcendence.

These findings open up a profound new understanding of spirituality as a product of neurological processes. It appears that the activity within the right parietal lobe, responsible for constructing and defining the self, plays a pivotal role in shaping our spiritual experiences. By quieting the self, individuals can access states of spiritual transcendence that transcend the boundaries of their physical existence.

"Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one's focus on the self," lead author Brick Johnstone said in a news release. "Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves."

Religious Practices and the Brain

The researchers did not stop there. They also investigated the role of the frontal lobe in religious practices. Surprisingly, they found that increased frontal lobe functioning was associated with higher scores on the BMMRS religious practice subscales. This intriguing connection suggests that the frontal lobe may play a role in promoting more frequent religious engagement and rituals. However, the precise nature of the relationship between the frontal lobe and religious or spiritual experiences remains elusive and requires further investigation.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the study's findings are just the beginning of a complex journey to unravel the mysteries of spirituality. Spiritual experiences are multifaceted phenomena influenced by a myriad of factors, including cultural influences, personal beliefs, and various brain regions. While the right parietal lobe and frontal lobe offer intriguing insights, they are not the sole architects of our spiritual experiences.

Therefore, the need for continued research in this area is imperative. Future studies can explore the interplay between different brain regions and the intricate neuropsychological processes that contribute to spiritual experiences. Additionally, the influence of cultural and social factors should be considered, as spirituality is deeply intertwined with the diverse fabric of human societies.

In conclusion, this study has contributed significantly to our understanding of the neural underpinnings of spirituality. The discovery of the link between decreased functioning of the right parietal lobe and spiritual transcendence sheds new light on the neurological basis of our profound experiences. 

However, it is essential to approach these findings with caution and an open mind, recognizing that spirituality is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon that extends beyond the confines of any single brain region. As we continue our quest for knowledge, we move closer to unraveling the intricate tapestry of human spirituality and the awe-inspiring nature of our existence.

bottom of page