Spirituality not controlled by one "God spot" in brain, MU researcher finds

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 1:45 p.m. CDT; updated 9:51 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 27, 2012

COLUMBIA — How the brain functions in a spiritual experience is controlled by multiple areas, rather than an isolated "God spot," an MU researcher discovered.

A study by Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions, found that the more frequently a person is involved in religious practices, the more active the frontal lobe of brain becomes. The finding also supports previous studies that associated the activities of the right parietal lobe with a human's feeling about divinity, Johnstone said. 

"Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals' spiritual experiences," he said.

Twenty people with an injured right parietal lobe, an area located a few inches above the right ear, were studied, Johnstone said. The researchers found participants who have more significant damages to this part of the brain show more closeness to a higher power.

Johnstone said the right parietal lobe makes people focus on themselves, while the left parietal lobe controls how people focus on others.

"If you hurt the part of the brain that focuses on the self, you focus on things that are beyond the self," Johnstone said. "That's the basic description of self-transcendence."

"The right side of brain has nothing to do with being selfish; it's all about being less focused on yourself when this part gets hurt." Johnstone said.

Johnstone said previous studies on Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns have found that they showed less activity on the right parietal lobe when they pray and meditate.

"People practice through meditation or prayer about how to become connected to God or the Universe," he said. "They can train the right side of the brain to be less active."

The average age of the participants was 41 and ranged from 18 to 78. A majority of the participants were caucasian, Johnstone said. However, the result is applicable in a general sense, he said.

"Everybody's brain is similar," he said. "It shouldn't matter if you are from United States, Germany, China or the Philippines. You injure that part of the brain, you are likely to become more spiritual."

Johnstone said this research does not support or deny evolutionary theory.

"It's just coming up with a different way to explain the manner in which people become spiritual," he said.

The Rev. Larry Veatch of First Christian Church said it doesn't really matter whether there is a "God spot" or not.

"It seems to be almost the universal part of human experience sensing there is something greater than themselves," Veatch said. "That is the basis of all spirituality whether it's Christian, Buddhist or Hindu."

"We know love exists, do we know there is a love spot in the brain?"

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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