• Mayuri Vaish

Neural effects of Spirituality

Here, ‘Spirituality’ is used as an umbrella term for mindfulness, faith in a higher power and religion, which it is defined as today. Despite the rise in atheism and “non-believers”, spirituality still largely plays a protective role for our mental health. This is due to its differential impacts on brain regions, hormones, and neurotransmitters.


Brain Regions

A 2018 fMRI-scan study showed that spirituality, essentially, reduces activity in the inferior parietal lobule (IPL)[1], a brain region involved in interpreting sensory input[2], perceiving emotions, and body image[3]. Similarly, they found lowered activity in the medial thalamus and caudate, regions associated with processing sensory information and emotion.

Below is the location of the IPL[4]:

Below are the locations of the thalamus and caudate:[5]

Furthermore, Miller et al. (2013)[6]‘s research depicts that spiritual believers had a 90% decreased risk in depression; Moreover, importance in spirituality was correlated with thicker cortices in the parietal and occipital regions, a frontal region, and the cuneus (located at the back of the brain). Further studies have suggested that the pre-frontal cortex is activated when practicing spirituality[7]. These regions are largely involved in perception, language, emotional and visual processing. These thickened cortices are suggested to explain subjects’ resilience to depression.

Lobes of the Brain[8]:

The limbic system, which highly regulates emotion and reward/motivation, is also suggested to activate in spiritual believers[9] — perhaps due to the harmonious experiences felt while practicing spirituality. Within the limbic system, the cingulate gyrus (processes emotions and regulates behavior) is also depicted to activate during meditation[10], and hippocampal (involved in memory-formation and spatial awareness) and amygdala (processes emotions) activity increased during meditation.[11][12]


Hormones

Cortisol’s levels (responsible for stress, raises body’s blood sugar) and noradrenaline (also regulates stress) levels decrease in the brain during meditation. Moreover, concentrations of melatonin (regulates sleep) rise[13].


Furthermore, vasopressin levels rise: This helps maintain normal blood pressure. These thus are hypothesized to increase arousal and enhance learning after meditation.


Neurotransmitters

The neurochemical dopamine, responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward, show to increase during meditation[14]. Moreover, serotonin (again responsible for pleasure) levels rise after meditation[15]; serotonin has also shown to contribute to hallucinogenic effects.


Both excitatory (enhances likelihood of neurons to fire) neurotransmitter glutamate and inhibitory (decreases likelihood of neurons to fire) neurotransmitter GABA increase during meditation.[16] Endorphins are also released, which could contribute to euphoric feelings during meditation.


Effect on Mental Health

A number of studies have correlated spirituality with decreased risk of illness or deterioration[17], such as increased longevity & less anxiety or depression[18]. Generally, it has also shown to reduce psychotic symptoms[19].


In all, spirituality has consistently shown to effectively counter mental illness and neurodegeneration. Perhaps this explains why, as a species, we have always worshipped the forces of nature or other higher powers. In this context, practices such as meditation are highly recommended to maintain one's well-being.