Dr. Brick Johnstone, University of Missouri – Neuropsychology of Religion

May 29, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Brick Johnstone of the University of Missouri explains efforts to pinpoint the location of the religious experience through brain imaging.

Brick Johnstone is a professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri. His research interests include the neuropsychology of spiritual experiences and the recovery process following traumatic brain injuries. His findings have been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.

About Dr. Johnstone

Dr. Brick Johnstone – Neuropsychology of Religion

Research is attempting to identify the different parts of the brain that are associated with spiritual experiences. However, new research from the University of Missouri suggests that we should be determining WHAT is happening in our brain during spiritual experiences, and not WHERE it is occurring.

Our research has identified such a neuropsychological process, specifically “selflessness,” that is associated with the experience of feeling connected to a higher power. In two studies we found that increased injury to the right parietal lobe, but no other neuroanatomical locations, was associated with increased spiritual transcendence.

It is established that the right parietal lobe is associated with focusing on the self (or is self-oriented).  For example, if you look at a picture of yourself the right parietal lobe is activated. In contrast, if you look at pictures of others the left parietal lobe is activated (that is, other-oriented). Similarly, individuals with right parietal lobe brain injury experience “disorders of the self,” such as neglecting the left side of their body in space, or losing the ability to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, a condition known as anosagnosia. These studies therefore suggest that decreased focus on the self (or selflessness), associated with decreased right parietal lobe functioning, is the neuropsychological foundation of spiritual transcendence (which is defined as connecting with things beyond the self).

Research with Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns also indicates that the right parietal lobe becomes inactive during meditation and prayer, respectively, with both groups reporting a decreased sense of the self during their spiritual experience. Such spiritual connection is likely to be more easily attained with regular meditation or prayer practices. Our ongoing research is determining how this spiritual connection is interpreted differently based on one’s religion.