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A study published in Cerebral Cortex by researchers at Oxford, Yale, and Columbia has finally been able to pinpoint at least some of what happens in the brain when a spiritual awakening takes place. Researchers were able to distinguish activity related to the concept or activities of spirituality in a single part of the brain. The parietal cortex, where researchers found spirituality to live happens to be where our attention comes from, Big Think reports.

The sample size for the study was small at just 27 participants. Despite the small sample size, the findings are profound- as to be expected when studying spirituality and the brain. Participants were assigned a simple task, to bring to mind a spiritual experience they personally had. According to the article, researchers call this an “imagery script”. In addition to spiritual experiences, participants recalled both stressful and peaceful experiences. Brain images were taken one week later through fMRI technology as participants listened to the sounds of a female voice telling them the stories of their spiritual experiences.

One of the most fascinating things about spirituality is its concurrent diversity and universality. Spirituality is something that all humans can experience, yet all humans seem to experience spirituality differently. People in recovery will often use biblical language to describe what their spiritual experience was or was not, like a “burning bush” moment. Going to recovery support group meetings or sitting in a process group therapy session in treatment makes it abundantly clear that a spiritual experience can be part of the human experience. What the researchers found make this even more profound- all volunteers neurologically experienced the same patterns.

When the female voice read the stories of spiritual experiences back to participants, their brains reacted exactly the same way. Increased activity in the parietal cortex meant increased attention. Decreased activity in the left inferior parietal lobe meant decreased awareness of self and/or others. Decreased activity was also found in the medial thalamus caudate. All of this activity lead researchers to better understand why spiritual experiences can cause the overwhelming sense of losing one’s ego or one’s self and the feeling of being at one with the greater powers that be.

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