More than 80 percent of people around the world consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. But research on the neuroscience of spirituality and religiosity has been sparse. Previous studies have used functional neuroimaging, in which an individual undergoes a brain scan while performing a task to see what areas of the brain light up. But these correlative studies have given a spotty and often inconsistent picture of spirituality. A new study led by investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital takes a new approach to mapping spirituality and religiosity and finds that spiritual acceptance can be localized to a specific brain circuit. This brain circuit is centered in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a brainstem region that has been implicated in numerous functions, including fear conditioning, pain modulation, altruistic behaviors and unconditional love. The team’s findings are published in Biological Psychiatry.
“Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric,” said corresponding author Michael Ferguson, PhD, a principal investigator in the Brigham’s Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics. “We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centered in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain.” [Continue reading…]