Increased feelings of transcendence can follow brain damage, a study of people with brain cancer suggests.
As feelings of transcending the physical world can be part of some religious experiences and other forms of spirituality, the finding may help explain why some people seem more prone to such experiences than others.
The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation
To further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer.
These volunteers suffered from two kinds of cancer: gliomas, which affect the brain cells that surround neurons, and meningiomas, which affect the membrane that wraps the brain itself.
Doctors removed neurons from the 48 glioma patients to stem the spread of their tumours, whereas the people with meningiomas had tumour cells removed, but no neurons.
Both before and not long after the patients received this surgery Urgesi’s team gave them a battery of personality tests. In particular, the researchers were interested…
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in a personality trait known as self-transcendence.
People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.
Urgesi’s team found that the 24 people with gliomas in the posterior parietal cortex tended to score higher on the self-transcendence test after surgery than they had before. By contrast, the scores of people with gliomas in the anterior region of the cortex, and of people with meningiomas, did not change after their surgery.
This suggests that it is the removal of neurons from the posterior parietal cortex which is responsible for the personality change, and not simply experiencing a serious illness or undergoing brain surgery, Urgesi says. He suggests that the removal reduces activity in this brain region and that this may increase feelings of transcendence.
Moreover, Urgesi noticed differences in the way the patients dealt with their illnesses. Those who had lost posterior parietal tissue tended to be less troubled by their cancers and their own mortality. Meanwhile those who had had their anterior portion removed tended to react more bitterly, Urgesi says. “They could not accept it.”
Urgesi speculates that naturally low activity in parietal regions in people without either brain damage or cancer could predispose them to self-transcendent feelings, and perhaps even to religions that emphasise such experiences such as Buddhism.
Out of body
“The idea of spirituality equalling the self-transcendence scale is perhaps a bit controversial,” says Uffe SchjÃƒÂ¸dt, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Aarhus University, Denmark.
But he adds that the study “does fit with previous work in the neuroscience of religion”. For example, studies in Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns and people experienced in meditation have shown that the posterior parietal cortex plays a role in prayer and meditation.
Urgesi also notes that electrically stimulating the temporoparietal junction – an area near the posterior parietal cortex – is known to induce out-of-body experiences , which also involve a breakdown in someone’s representation of their physical self and their environment.