Researchers say the implications are that people in many disciplines ~ including peace studies, health care or religion ~ can learn different ways to attain selflessness, to experience transcendence, and to help themselves and others.
The Missouri study, along with other recent neuroradiological studies of Buddhist meditators and Francescan nuns, suggests that all individuals, regardless of cultural background or religion, experience the same neuropsychological functions during spiritual experiences, such as transcendence.
Transcendence, feelings of universal unity and decreased sense of self, is a core tenet of all major religions. Meditation and prayer are the primary vehicles by which such spiritual transcendence is achieved.
Meditation, Prayer are Keys
“The brain functions in a certain way during spiritual experiences,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions. “We studied people with brain injury and found that people with injuries to the right parietal lobe of the brain reported higher levels of spiritual experiences, such as transcendence.”
This link is important, Johnstone said, because it means selflessness can be learned by decreasing activity in that part of the brain. He suggests this can be done through conscious effort, such as meditation or prayer. People with these selfless spiritual experiences also are more psychologically healthy, especially if they have positive beliefs that there is a God or higher power who loves them, he said.
“This research also addresses questions regarding the impact of neurologic versus cultural factors on spiritual experience,” Johnstone said. “The ability to connect with things beyond the self, such as transcendent experiences, seems to occur for people who minimize right parietal functioning. This can be attained through cultural practices, such as intense meditation or prayer or because of a brain injury that impairs the functioning of the right parietal lobe. Either way, our study suggests that ‘selflessness’ is a neuropsychological foundation of spiritual experiences.”
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