The Grapevine

Spiritual Experiences May Help With Mental Health Disorders

Literature on the link between spirituality and mental health is relatively scarce and inconclusive. 

Some have shown spiritual beliefs and practices to be effective coping mechanisms, serving as a source of hope and comfort for patients suffering from mood disorders. But others have also documented negative links, such as the higher risk of suicide and mental health problems associated with those who had a strict religious upbringing.

Recently, scientists identified one of the regions of the brain involved in spiritual experiences, a finding that could provide a better insight into the link between such experiences and mental health. The study titled "Neural Correlates of Personalized Spiritual Experiences" was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex on May 29.

As many as 27 healthy young adults were interviewed by a collaborative team of researchers from Yale and Columbia universities.

Participants were asked to recall experiences from their past that were stressful, pleasant, and spiritual in nature. The spiritual experience was described as a situation where the person felt a strong connection to higher power or presence. This does not necessarily have to be a religious experience. 

"Spiritual states are those that through a felt-sense connect you to something bigger than oneself, a oneness, or strong force which may be experienced as an energy, force, higher power, G-d, deity or transcendent figure or consciousness," the instructor said.

After a week, the participants underwent functional MRI (fMRI) scans while listening to recordings based on their respective experiences. Even though each person had a different experience, the researchers noted similar patterns of activity in the parietal cortex as they listened to the recordings and recalled the event.

More specifically, the patterns occurred in the left inferior parietal lobe (IPL) of the brain. This region is said to be involved in self-awareness and processing different kinds of stimuli (auditory, visual, sensory and motor, etc.) at the same time. Numerous studies have found IPL volume deficits in schizophrenia patients.

"Taken together, the present finding suggests that spiritual experiences may involve a perceived encounter with a spacious 'presence' or entity external to oneself," the authors wrote. They found this interpretation to be consistent with the intense feeling of connection or surrender to godlike figures, often reported in research. 

"Spiritual experiences are robust states that may have profound impacts on people’s lives," said study author Marc Potenza, professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. "Understanding the neural bases of spiritual experiences may help us better understand their roles in resilience and recovery from mental health and addictive disorders."

The study was limited by the lack of diversity in the small sample size of young, English-speaking people from Connecticut. But with a deeper understanding of how spiritual experiences are mediated by the brain, the researchers hope to help "facilitate the judicious integration of spirituality" into both prevention and treatment of mental health conditions.