Apr 24, 2012
Do Prayer and Meditation Make Us Feel More Spiritual by Decreasing the Activity in the Right Side of Our Brains?
Yes, two of the studies we have completed at the University of Missouri both indicate that individuals who injure the right parietal lobe (RPL) of their brain report increasing levels of spirituality. We believe this is because the RPL is responsible for focusing on the self (i.e., if you see a picture of yourself, your RPL becomes very active). In addition, in neuropsychology, it is common for individuals who hurt the RPL to have “disorders of the self” in which they have a distorted sense of the self (i.e., usually involving decreased focus on certain aspects of the self). This suggests that decreasing focus on the self (which can also be called increased “selflessness”), associated with decreased functioning of the RPL, serves as the neuropsychological foundation of spiritual experiences. That is, by focusing less on yourself, you are better able to connect with things beyond the self, such as the divine (i.e., which is the basic definition of self-transcendence).
Our research is also supported by other research that looked at the blood flow in the brain of both Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns during meditation and prayer, respectively. Both groups showed decreased blood flow in the RPL during their most heightened states of meditation or prayer, which is consistent with their report of losing their sense of self during their most enlightened states. However, an individual’s religious or cultural background determines how this selflessness is interpreted (i.e., as related to God for Christian nuns, as related to absorption into the “void” for Buddhists). Repeated meditative and prayerful practices make it easier for these individuals to achieve this selfless, spiritual state.
The take home message is, therefore, a decreased focus on the self can be associated with increased emotional connection with things beyond the self, which is interpreted by a person’s culture or religion.
Brick Johnstone is a professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri.