Brain Circuit for Spirituality Identified

Summary: A new study has identified a specific brain circuit centered in the periaqueductal gray that is linked to spiritual acceptance and religiosity.

Source: Brigham and Women’s Hospital

More than 80 percent of people around the world consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. But research on the neuroscience of spirituality and religiosity has been sparse. Previous studies have used functional neuroimaging, in which an individual undergoes a brain scan while performing a task to see what areas of the brain light up. But these correlative studies have given a spotty and often inconsistent picture of spirituality.

A new study led by investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital takes a new approach to mapping spirituality and religiosity and finds that spiritual acceptance can be localized to a specific brain circuit.

This brain circuit is centered in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a brainstem region that has been implicated in numerous functions, including fear conditioning, pain modulation, altruistic behaviors and unconditional love.

The team’s findings are published in Biological Psychiatry.

“Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric,” said corresponding author Michael Ferguson, PhD, a principal investigator in the Brigham’s Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics. “We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centered in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain.”

To conduct their study, Ferguson and colleagues used a technique called lesion network mapping that allows investigators to map complex human behaviors to specific brain circuits based on the locations of brain lesions in patients.

The team leveraged a previously published dataset that included 88 neurosurgical patients who were undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor. Lesion locations were distributed throughout the brain. Patients completed a survey that included questions about spiritual acceptance before and after surgery.

The team validated their results using a second dataset made up of more than 100 patients with lesions caused by penetrating head trauma from combat during the Vietnam War. These participants also completed questionnaires that included questions about religiosity (such as, “Do you consider yourself a religious person? Yes or No?”).

Of the 88 neurosurgical patients, 30 showed a decrease in self-reported spiritual belief before and after neurosurgical brain tumor resection, 29 showed an increase, and 29 showed no change. Using lesion network mapping, the team found that self-reported spirituality mapped to a specific brain circuit centered on the PAG. The circuit included positive nodes and negative nodes — lesions that disrupted these respective nodes either decreased or increased self-reported spiritual beliefs.

Results on religiosity from the second dataset aligned with these findings. In addition, in a review of the literature, the researchers found several case reports of patients who became hyper-religious after experiencing brain lesions that affected the negative nodes of the circuit.

Lesion locations associated with other neurological and psychiatric symptoms also intersected with the spirituality circuit. Specifically, lesions causing parkinsonism intersected positive areas of the circuit, as did lesions associated with decreased spirituality. Lesions causing delusions and alien limb syndrome intersected with negative regions, associated with increased spirituality and religiosity.

“It’s important to note that these overlaps may be helpful for understanding shared features and associations, but these results should not be over-interpreted,” said Ferguson.

“For example, our results do not imply that religion is a delusion, that historical religious figures suffered from alien limb syndrome, or that Parkinson’s disease arises due to a lack of religious faith. Instead, our results point to the deep roots of spiritual beliefs in a part of our brain that’s been implicated in many important functions.”

The authors note that the datasets they used do not provide rich information about the patient’s upbringing, which can have an influence over spiritual beliefs, and that patients in both datasets were from predominantly Christian cultures. To understand the generalizability of their results, they would need to replicate their study across many backgrounds.

This shows a woman's hand filled with sunlight
Lesion locations associated with other neurological and psychiatric symptoms also intersected with the spirituality circuit. Image is in the public domain

The team is also interested in untangling religiosity and spirituality to understand brain circuits that may be driving differences. Additionally, Ferguson would like to pursue clinical and translational applications for the findings, including understanding the role that spirituality and compassion may have in clinical treatment.

“Only recently have medicine and spirituality been fractionated from one another. There seems to be this perennial union between healing and spirituality across cultures and civilizations,” said Ferguson.

“I’m interested in the degree to which our understanding of brain circuits could help craft scientifically grounded, clinically-translatable questions about how healing and spirituality can co-inform each other.”

Funding: Funding for this work was provided by an NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Institutional Research Training Grant (T32MH112510), the Shields Research Grant from the Child Neurology Foundation, the Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Foundation, the Nancy Lurie Marks Foundation, the Mather’s Foundation, the Kaye Family Research Endowment, and the National Institutes of Health (grants R01 MH113929, R01 MH115949, and R01 AG060987).

About this neurotheology research news

Source: Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Contact: Elaine St Peter – Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
A neural circuit for spirituality and religiosity derived from patients with brain lesions” by Michael Ferguson et al. Biological Psychiatry


A neural circuit for spirituality and religiosity derived from patients with brain lesions


Over 80% of the global population consider themselves religious with even more identifying as spiritual, but the neural substrates of spirituality and religiosity remain unresolved.


In two independent brain lesion datasets (N1=88; N2=105), we apply lesion network mapping to test whether lesion locations associated with spiritual and religious belief map to a specific human brain circuit.


We found that brain lesions associated with self-reported spirituality map to a brain circuit centered on the periaqueductal grey. Intersection of lesion locations with this same circuit aligned with self-reported religiosity in an independent dataset, as well as prior reports of lesions associated with hyper-religiosity. Lesion locations causing delusions and alien limb syndrome also intersected this circuit.


These findings suggest that spirituality and religiosity map to a common brain circuit centered on the periaqueductal grey, a brainstem region previously implicated in fear conditioning, pain modulation, and altruistic behavior.

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  1. This website is becoming less and less reliable for good information. This article is basically BS and is confirmation bias for spirituality and religion. What about people who do not have any religious inclinations or spirituality? I have repeatedly attempted to enter into various religious/spiritual spaces to no avail. I experience NOTHING, never have. Does that mean that portion of my brain never developed, or was damaged, or is blocked somehow? I doubt it.

  2. Hello. Just a comment here on your “Brain Circuit for Spirituality Identified” I was taught religion has to do with the doctrine and tradition of the church. Spiritual has to do with the one on one with GOD/Creator/CHRIST JESUS-whatever one prefer to use. Spiritual is a relationship. So when asking if one is religious and or spiritual I wonder if most know the different? Not to say I am such an authority on the subject, but I was informed of the differences. In other words, religion may not have anything to do with the spiritual. And I too am a neurosurgical patient. I had my removed in 1995 or 6. And I am spiritual.
    Thank you.

  3. *insert lots of swear words here and head bobbing*

    It’s about time this sort of thing happened!

    I mean that one comment near the end about finding ways to balance the rational/logical/”gerr I’m a bad*ss serious adult” type of science with the more emotional and ambiguous sides of spirituality

    Religion is a ridged more controlled branch of spirituality

    Though I’m rather disappointed in the way this study was carried out

    It reminds me too much of advanced highschool science where you are asked to measure everything in the beaker but no one thinks to measure before taking stuff out

    Ok fine, a paper was filled out… That’s almost pointless at this stage of evolution (IQ, EQ and tech available)

    As someone who has survived a stroke at 32 and has been abandoned by the medical world, being forced to evaluate how my brain has changed and be able to clearly articulate it…

    The small amount of information in this article is enough to pin point that those involved in the study went through changes in personality due to the brain modifications

    And that these individuals are not nearly articulate enough or self aware enough to be able to recognize those changes

    Perhaps over time
    Perhaps not

    But honestly what should have been done is to interview these folks before and after the surgery…

    Using a SPECT scan to analyze the brain in real time
    To gather a baseline of how they think, what they feel, how their brain lights up as they explain various view points, past history and any abnormal/paranormal experiences that lead them to believe in something larger than themselves… No matter what label they use be it religious or spiritual

    Then do the surgery

    Then do the SPECT scan all over again to see how things changed

    There is so much we don’t know about the brain and why we only use a portion of it

    The brain is much like the universe in that we still can’t fully understand what dark matter is, how the kinetic energy of celestial bodies influence space as well as anything within range of that kinetic energy

    And it is extremely frustrating to see so many aspects of life, the universe and everything… How it all overlaps or mirrors who and what we are as humans

    Until we end the war between science and magic/spirituality/religion… There is so much we won’t learn

    I classify magic as the science we have yet to break down and explain

    All of it… Everything we know… All of it is connected but too often we cut things up and separate them, refusing to see the connections or similarities or or or

    It’s frustrating!
    I see the connections

  4. Sounds like that regime of the brain is the salamander in us. It’s away for humans to heal. Though I believe spirituality is in every breath we take, making the heart and gut brain the motivator of the brain. Without oxygen the brain suffocated.

  5. I really believe that there are differences also in the brains of politically left leaning and right leaning people and would be interested in research on this.

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