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The Neuroscience of Spirituality

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The Neuroscience of Spirituality

If there comes a time in your life when you are facing mental illness or addiction, you may be prompted by loved ones, as well as professionals, to seek solace in spirituality.  The definition of a spiritual experience varies greatly for different individuals and may include spending time in nature, learning to meditate, or committing yourself to religious practice.  For some people who have not been exposed to spirituality, or have had negative experiences in their past surrounding religion, it can be difficult to approach this concept with an open mind. While spirituality is often thought of as separate from science and medicine, research is beginning to find the many ways in which these two worlds overlap and connect.  Even for the most cynical seekers of wellness, there may be scientific evidence that suggests spirituality is worth trying.  

Health Benefits

Even before the field of neuroscience began looking at every experience through the lens of brain scans, medical professionals understood the power of spirituality and religion to improve both physical and mental health outcomes for patients.  There are a variety of reasons why this might be the case. Spirituality is often tied to religion and community, meaning that religious individuals are more likely to establish quality human connections and feel as if they are a part of something larger than themselves.  Having a sense of purpose and belonging is essential to maintaining mental health, and mental health is intrinsically tied to physical wellbeing. People who participate in spiritual practices, whether as a part of a religious organization or while meditating alone, are also less likely to suffer from severe stress, and as a result, high blood pressure.  The stress-reducing benefits of a spiritual practice make fighting off disease and healing from injury easier on the body and mind and ultimately lead to a longer lifespan.

Spirituality and the Brain

In recent years, neuroscientists have set out to identify and map the neurological process of every imaginable human experience, including spiritual awakening.  While there is still much research to be done, the results from existing studies are incredibly enlightening when it comes to spirituality and the brain, as well as the implications surrounding mental health.  One study sought to understand the way spirituality functions in the brain by using scans to identify the activity as volunteers recounted spiritual experiences. The results indicated that every participant’s brain followed the same pattern of activity, showing increased activity in the parietal cortex while reliving spiritual moments, and reduced activity in the left inferior parietal lobe as well as the medial thalamus and caudate.  The parietal cortex is responsible for focus, while the areas showing less activity are responsible for self-awareness, emotions, and sensory data. This observation points to the common experience of feeling “out of body” or as if you have transcended beyond your physical surroundings during a spiritual experience. 

Furthermore, one study found that spiritual experiences and depression seemed to light up the same areas of the brain, but have opposite long-term effects.  While depression has been found to thin out the prefrontal cortex, regular spiritual practice can thicken, and possibly improve function in this region over time.  The prefrontal cortex is responsible for many essential functions involved in positive mental health including foresight, decision-making, and the ability to change your behavior.  This is especially enticing information when it comes to addiction, which is by definition an inability to change unwanted behavior. It seems that the spiritual aspect of the 12-Step programs offered by many recovery centers may be supported by neuroscience.

Chemical Process of Spirituality

A scientist may tell you that the human brain evolved to experience spirituality as a survival skill, and a priest might tell you that God endowed us with brains hardwired to commune with the spiritual world.  Regardless of what you believe, spiritual experiences have been observed creating physical and chemical responses in the human brain. Finding a way to connect with the universe or a higher power releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and reward.  This may be why people who cultivate a regular spiritual practice are more likely to maintain a positive outlook on life and occasionally experience moments of pure bliss. While drugs and alcohol can also increase dopamine production temporarily, spirituality doesn’t come with the same cost to your health, relationships, finances, and happiness.    

Reaping the benefits of a healthy relationship with a higher power is nearly impossible in active addiction, but with the right help, you can expand your experiences and find what brings you the most authentic joy.  If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, now is the time to seek help. At Burning Tree Ranch, we specialize in long-term care that produces real results, especially for those who have experienced relapse.  Here you will find a team of qualified and compassionate professionals, ready to help each client through a customized treatment program that addresses all aspects of addiction, including the identification of co-occurring disorders.  We know that the journey towards recovery doesn’t end with the conclusion of an inpatient program, and therefore we provide extensive aftercare programs to best support our clients during their transition into lasting sobriety. We also know that addiction affects the whole family, and therefore loved ones are encouraged to participate in the recovery process and take advantage of all our support resources.  For more information, call us today at 877-389-0500 


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