MU professor chosen to explore spirituality and the brain in international fellowship

Aug 24, 2013

What goes on in the brain during a spiritual experience?

The answers to that question are Brick Johnstone’s specialty.

Brick Johnstone, a professor and neuropsychologist, is among eight scholars from around the world who will be exploring spirituality and the brain during a nine-month fellowship.
Brick Johnstone, a professor and neuropsychologist, is among eight scholars from around the world who will be exploring spirituality and the brain during a nine-month fellowship.
Credit Courtesy MU Department of Health Psychology

Johnstone is a professor and neuropsychologist in MU’s health psychology department. He’s one of eight scholars from around the world who are about to begin a nine-month fellowship at the Center of Theological Inquiry associated with Princeton University. The fellowship is funded by a grant from the Templeton Foundation.

The group of scholars – comprised of theologians, an ethicist, a cognitive psychologist and two neuroscientists (that’s where Johnstone fits in) – will come together around the theme, “Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity.”

In other words, they will be exploring the neurological foundations of spiritual experiences and moral behaviors, bringing their expertise from science and the humanities together. 

“In the past, I think that scientists didn’t think that spirituality was something that could really be studied,” Johnstone said. “And on the other hand, I think theologians and humanists kind of though that it was inappropriate to study something that is unstudiable. But I think we’ll find a really nice way to bridge the two.”

Johnstone, who grew up in a Methodist household and now practices Buddhism, has always been interested in religion and spirituality. And there’s an important distinction to make between the two terms, particularly for study.

“Religion is a set of behaviors that are based on cultural expectations, so you have a certain set of beliefs about the nature of the universe that’s involved with different rituals,” he said. “Spirituality is basically an emotional connection with things beyond the self” – things like a god, nirvana or the universe.

The basics of brain spirituality

The way the brain works during spiritual experiences might seem surprising.

“You’d think that if someone is more spiritual, a part of their brain would be more active,” Johnstone said. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Spirituality is connected with a part of the brain called the right parietal lobe. That’s the part of the brain that is associated with processing information about the self.

When you see a picture of yourself, for example, the right parietal lobe becomes more active.

When that lobe is hurt, people experience a disorder of the self, such as ignoring one side of the body, or eating food from only one side of the plate.

Johnstone’s first study in this area involved 26 people with brain injuries. Those with diminished right parietal lobe function had increased spiritual transcendence – in other words, those with less self-focus were more spiritual.

“It made us think that transcendence is related to minimizing focus on the self, or selflessness, which is experienced in different ways – getting lost in thought, in music, or in spiritual connection with a higher power,” he said.

But there’s more. Forgiveness is also related to a decrease in right parietal lobe function. It makes sense, Johnstone said: “In order to be forgiving, you kind of need to give up that angst that ‘I’ve been wronged by someone.”

Through other studies, Johnstone has observed that empathy is connected to more activity in the left hemisphere of the brain. So, the right hemisphere is focused on the self, and the left on others.

Looking forward to the fellowship

Johnstone will use things findings while collaborating with the others in the fellowship.

From the scientific perspective, he expects dialogue about spiritual experiences being brain-based.

“Most people think that’s not the case; they’ll think that people are spiritual by God’s grace, so you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, and that’s why you’re spiritual,” Johnstone said. “We will say, ‘Well maybe that’s the case, but at the same time, there’s parts of the brain that are active or inactive during different types of spiritual experiences.”

He anticipates the theologians and religious studies scholars of the group to talk about different ideas of the self in different religions. For example, Christianity talks about the importance of being selfless; Buddhism talks about the small self and “the big Self with a capital ‘S.’”

Selflessness helps tie the different perspectives together: “Religions talk about selflessness, and the neurosciences talk about a selfless process, and it seems to be a real way to explain how people experience these spiritual experiences.”

Johnstone emphasized that studying spirituality in a scientific way does not diminish the importance of religion – rather, it helps lead to a better understanding.

This research could also have practical outcomes, such as helping people be more oriented toward others. Eventually, Johnstone would love to see this knowledge applied practically in a peace studies context and for reconciliation projects. “We would love to take it to a more societal level,” he said.

“It’d be really kind of neat to map the spiritual geography of the brain, and then determine how we can use this information for practical uses.”