Religion and Spirituality and its neurological correlates.

Edlyn Sinate,

St. Xavier's College (Autonomous),

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India


Religion and spirituality (R/S) have strongly influenced and have been at the heart of many human societies and cultures across the globe for ages. Religion and Spirituality have been slightly differentiated although they are frequently used interchangeably. The term ‘religion’ is used to describe the system of beliefs and the practices associated with those beliefs like the manner in which prayers are said, offerings are offered, worshipping God etc. whereas ‘spirituality’ has often been used to describe a broader belief which acknowledges the existence of a higher power without necessarily naming it, searching for purpose and finding meaning in life. The conflict between R/S and modern sciences including health sciences seems to be as most of R/S is based on beliefs and thoughts of people which are intangible and hence cannot be quantified or proven, which is the very base of modern science, to be able to observe and quantify. But modern science has come a long way and we now can perform magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans and electroencephalography (EEG) which give us insights on the neurological aspects of R/S.

Studies conducted on individuals who are at high family risk (HR) for depression and low risk (LR) for depression reported that the effect of high R/S importance among the population differed. In HR subjects, the emotional event-related potentials (ERPs) and right lateralized emotional arousal of occipitotemporal (extrastriate) cortex were reported to be reduced in HR individuals and increased in the LR individuals, suggesting buffer-like effect against depression. High R/S importance has also been associated with thicker and lesser thinning of the cortices in the occipital and parietal regions of the brain, a phenotype which has been observed in individuals at lower risk for depression, again implicative of its ability to protect from depression. The connectivity of the default mode network (DMN) is also observed to be reduced, potentially helping in adapting to stressful events one faces in a lifetime. Furthermore, in individuals that reported high R/S importance, the pial surface which is the boundary present between the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and the gray matter was observed to be larger when compared to those that reported low R/S importance. The EEG of the posterior alpha oscillations when measured at rest were also observed to be more in individuals that rated R/S to be important and this indicates the possibility that these individuals will respond to treatments for depression better. Electrophysiological instruments used to measure transient responses of the brain such as error-related negativity (ERN) were implemented and it was found that stronger belief in God was related to a decrease in ERN which originates from the anterior cingulate cortex and is related to self-regulation and monitoring performance. This has been interpreted as evidence for the fact that decreased ERN can act as a buffer and protect against anxiety by reducing error experiences. A study which was conducted as a follow up reported that a relation existed between reduced affective responses to error and focusing on God’s forgiveness and love rather than His wrath. Another study conducted showed there was a relationship between social conformity and religiosity as higher social conformity was observed in individuals of the religious group showing decreased late ERP positivity. In the study conducted by Beauregard et al., carmelite nuns were asked to recall mystical experiences while fMRI scans were performed on them. These scans showed that right middle temporal cortex, right medial orbitofrontal cortex, superior parietal and right inferior lobules, left brain stem, left medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), right caudate and extrastriate visual cortex were involved and hence demonstrated that various brain systems worked together in order to mediate these experiences. Another study by Schjoedt and colleagues examined prayers wherein it was found that there was an increase in stimulation of the right caudate nucleus during highly structured as well as less structured prayers and in individuals that reported praying as a habitual behaviour implying that religious prayers were involved in the stimulation of dopaminergic reward systems and thus can have a calming effect.

Although research and scientific enquiry in this field is still quite limited, many researchers have started to feel the need to integrate R/S into healthcare. Spirituality has been regarded as a ‘Silent dimension’ as many practitioners are still timid to implement it as a part of the treatment they provide. A study in the US reported on how mindfulness can affect gene expression and can even lower the rate of morbidity. Mindfulness has also shown that it has the capacity to regulate pathways involved in inflammatory responses as a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin and Barcelona. It has been seen as the easternization of the west as many eastern countries are still rooted in more traditional beliefs and practitioners encourage their patients to engage in their beliefs while undergoing treatments.Koenig emphasises on how spirituality, physical and mental health are intertwined and hence its clinical applications can perhaps be extended to combat anxiety and stress. Integrating R/S in modern healthcare may prove to be a more holistic and compassionate approach which may tend better to the needs of the patients.


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