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No one knows for sure when religion first became a part of human life. Analysis of burial sites, cave paintings, and other prehistoric art suggest that it started at least 30,000 years ago, perhaps stretching even further back into the days when Neanderthals walked the planet.
The puzzle of ‘What does the brain look like on God?’ is still an ongoing mystery and each year brings new discoveries that take us one step closer to understanding the neurobiology of religion and spirituality.
The scientific study of religion is much younger. Though some early social scientists conducted studies on religious experience in the late 19th century, the scientific study of religion didn’t really take off until around the 1950’s.
So, what have we learned in the past 70 years that we didn’t know before?
Here are 5 of the most significant findings that have emerged from the scientific study of religion and spirituality:
1. People have a hard time agreeing on what terms like “religion” and “spirituality” mean.
That may sound like a nothingburger of a finding but it has important implications for nearly all research relating to the sacred.
The psychology of religion expert, Dr. Kenneth Pargament, defines spirituality as a “search for the sacred” and religion as “the search for significance that occurs within…established institutions that are designed to facilitate spirituality.”
Those definitions may seem overlapping, and indeed they are. One implication of this definition then is that religion involves searching for significance more broadly, which may include searching for the sacred (e.g., connection to God, a higher power, or universal force) but could also include other goals (e.g., communion with other believers).
Pargament and his colleagues have found that most people who describe themselves as religious also describe themselves as spiritual, and vice versa, but there is a sizable minority (a little less than 20%) who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
These individuals tend to draw from an a la carte menu of spiritual options but ultimately take their spirituality straight—hold the religion! Specifically, they’re less likely to engage in traditional forms of worship (e.g., church attendance, prayer) and more likely to report having mystical experiences (e.g., moments of spiritual insight, enlightenment, or ecstasy) and hold “New Age” beliefs (e.g., in alternative medicine).
2. Overall, people who describe themselves as more religious and/or spiritual tend to have better mental and physical health.
Studies have shown modest links between religion/spirituality and a range of positive outcomes, including (a) better physical functioning and health among cancer patients, (b) less depression, (c) lower likelihood of committing crimes, (d) better adjustment after bereavement, and (e) lower mortality rates.
But the relationship between religion/spirituality and health is a complex one that depends on a number of factors, like how the concepts are defined.
Religion and spirituality may also play different roles depending on what we’re facing in our lives. For example, the link between religiousness and lower levels of depression is strongest when some recent stressful life event has occurred.
3. Religious and mystical experiences are associated with unique patterns of activity in the brain.
A number of studies have now performed scans of religious adherent’s brains in the midst of a religious practice or experience.
Religious experiences involve a complex interplay of several regions of the brain, which appear to selectively ‘light up’ or ‘go to sleep’ depending on the religious practice under study.
For example, meditation practices (which involve a heightened states of conscious attention and awareness) are often associated with increased activity in the frontal lobes. Just as their name implies, these lobes sit at the front of the brain and serve as a conscious ‘control panel,’ carrying out higher mental processes such as thinking, decision making, and planning.
Meditation also appears to decrease activity in the parietal lobes, located near the center of the brain and behind the frontal lobes. This part of the brain is responsible for perceiving 3D objects in space, among other functions. Decreased activity in the parietal lobes during meditation could reflect some kind of transcendent experience or blurring of the perceived boundary between self and others.
In contrast to meditation, trance practices involve a more passive kind of attention, which might be likened to being so immersed in a television program that you lose track of your surroundings. At least one study has shown that trance states are generally associated with less brain activity in the frontal lobes (unlike meditation), reflecting an absence of self-awareness, focus, and consciousness.
Of course, the puzzle of ‘What does the brain look like on God?’ is still an ongoing mystery and each year brings new discoveries that take us one step closer to understanding the neurobiology of religion and spirituality. In just 2016, for example, a study of devout Mormons showed that religious experiences (i.e., “feeling the Spirit”) can also activate reward and pleasure centers in the brain—the same ones involved in sex, drug use, and feelings of love.
4. There can also be a dark side to religion and spirituality.
Despite the fact that religiosity is generally associated with better mental and physical health, that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s all rainbows and sunshine.
People who hold strong religious and spiritual convictions may also risk a hard fall when life events challenge sacred beliefs and assumptions. Such situations can prompt a painful spiritual struggle, characterized by a questioning of God’s love or power, or a feeling that one is being abandoned or punished by God.
In an analysis of 49 studies on the topic, spiritual struggles of this kind were generally found to be associated with poorer mental health outcomes.
5. There are benefits to making religion and spirituality a part of mental health treatment.
In a recent review and analysis of all studies on the topic, treatments that attempted to accommodate or incorporate aspects of one’s faith were shown to be somewhat more effective than traditional psychotherapy. As might be expected, the advantage of religious and spiritually integrative therapies were most pronounced for spiritual outcomes (e.g., promoting positive religious coping).
Thus, if it is spiritual woes that are bothering you the most, it might make sense to seek a counselor that understands your beliefs and is comfortable discussing them with you.
The Bottom Line
Though hard to ever really pin down, 70 years of research on religion and spirituality have revealed that, for the most part, religiosity enhances the lives of most believers.
But, there can be trouble in paradise. When spiritual struggle and doubt become impairing, counselors with knowledge and experience of such matters may be best equipped to address these concerns.
At a broader level, however, these findings highlight the power of belief, ritual, and community in shaping our lives, at both a micro (e.g., affecting neurons in the brain) and macro (e.g., affecting relationships with others) level.
So, what role has belief, ritual, and community played in your life? Use our Charting Your Spiritual Journey exercise to learn more. And let us know how it goes!
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