Maps of religiosity to a specific brain circuit
Interview with MedicalResearch.com with:
Michael Ferguson, PhD
Teacher in Neurology | Harvard Medical School
Speaker on neurospirituality | Harvard School of Theology
Brain Circuit Therapy Center
Brigham and Women’s Hospital
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background of this study?
Reply: Over 80% of the world’s population consider themselves religious and identify themselves even more as spiritual, but the neural substrates of spirituality and religiosity remain unresolved.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings? Where is this circuit located in the brain? What other effects does this circuit control or influence?
Reply: We have found that the brain damage associated with self-reported spirituality corresponds to a human brain circuit centered on periaqueductal gray.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Reply: These findings suggest that spirituality and religiosity correspond to a common brain circuitry centered on periaqueductal gray, a region of the brainstem previously involved in fear conditioning, pain modulation, and altruistic behavior.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Reply: While this study focused on the commonalities between spirituality and religiosity, namely “spiritual acceptance” or more simply “faith,” future work could productively explore which brain circuits are associated with the differences between certain forms of spirituality (eg mysticism) and some forms of religiosity (eg fundamentalism).
MedicalResearch.com: Would you like to add anything else?
Reply: At the level of science and technology, we are delighted that brain imaging methods are increasingly capable of probing aspects of human nature traditionally reserved for philosophers and theologians. We look forward to what we hope will be productive conversations between neuroscience, medicine, spirituality studies, and religion.
Michael A. Ferguson, Frederic LWVJ Schaper, Alexander Cohen, Shan Siddiqi, Sarah M. Merrill, Jared A. Nielsen, Jordan Grafman, Cosimo Urgesi, Franco Fabbro, Michael D. Fox. A neural circuit for spirituality and religiosity derived from patients with brain damage. Biological Psychiatry, 2021; DOI: 10.1016 / j.biopsych.2021.06.016
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