Spirituality is a Brain State We Can All Reach, Religious or Not

August 27, 2021

Well, we could say spirituality is a Heart State…but never mind, the article has some good points.

William James, the father of Western psychology, in 1902 defined spiritual experiences as states of higher consciousness, which are induced by efforts to understand the general principles or structure of the world through one’s inner experience. At the core of his view of spirituality is what we might call ‘connectedness’, which refers to the fact that individual goals can be truly realised only in the context of the whole – one’s relationship to the world and to others.

Traditionally, this spiritual state has been described as divine, achievable through contemplative and embodied practices, such as prayer, meditation and rhythmic rituals. Indeed, this higher state of consciousness and connection has been reported in many spiritual traditions, ranging from Buddhism to Sufism and Judaism to Christianity.

However, recent neuroscientific research shows that the same state can be achieved by secular practices too. Scientific and creative epiphanies with their accompanying ecstatic states characterised by a sense of unity and bliss are similar to religious experiences, with both involving a higher state of presence and observation. Many geniuses, such as Albert Einstein and the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, reported spiritual-like states during their revelations or breakthroughs.

But these don’t have to be the rare experiences of a chosen few. They can be reached in daily life. As the Nobel laureate and poet Czesław Miłosz put it: ‘Description demands intense observation, so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous.’

I’m a neuroscientist and, among other things, I study the way that spiritual states are reflected in the brain and other parts of the body.

Spiritual practices have been shown to be closely linked to self-awareness, empathy and a sense of connectedness, all of which can be correlated with the frequency of brainwaves as measured by electroencephalogram (EEG). Studies using EEG have demonstrated how ‘fragmented’ or out of step our whole brain activity can be much of the time, suggestive of conflicts between our behaviour, thinking, feeling and communication.

On the other hand, expert meditators demonstrate more ‘harmonious’ brain waves, which could be indicative of greater synchrony or connectivity within and across different neural areas. In short, spirituality, similar to love, has physiological effects in the brain and body, and EEG provides a window on these changes.

What’s more, research suggests that we can do more than just measure this kind of activity. We can also train our brains to behave in a more ‘aware’ way by engaging in activities that facilitate greater connection or neural synchronisation. Higher synchronisation – imagine a large group of brain cells singing together – has been found following the practice of different contemplative paradigms, such as meditation and prayer (creating, as it were, slower ocean waves, now growing calmer and calmer).

One way of interpreting this is that neuronal synchronisation enhances our brain ‘harmony’ or ‘integrity’ – achieving a state in which the brain works in a more congruent way, adopting a more global perspective.

Other findings point to the psychological consequences of this state – greater neuronal synchronisation tends to enable a greater ability to make moral judgments and problem-solve creatively.

Neuronal synchronisation also correlates with feeling more self-connected, which can, in turn, further increase empathy, creativity and social effectiveness. In two words, it’s associated with greater self-awareness, which has many practical benefits.

For instance, the psychologist and author of Insight (2017) Tasha Eurich wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2018 that people with greater self-awareness are more confident, make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively. The self-aware also receive more promotions, have more satisfied employees, and achieve more profitable companies.

We can transcend the here and now to create a more ‘spherical’ life that changes our focus from basic needs and fears to values

You might be concerned that taking a neuroscientific approach to profound, ineffable spiritual experiences is reductionist. But another perspective is that the scientific exploration of such experiences could reveal the mechanisms enabling us all to achieve these states even in the most mundane moments, such as waiting in traffic.

Scientific discovery could turn seemingly subjective experiences into unified (and unifying) understanding. Simply put, I’ve seen how spirituality can be experienced in the lab! Let me share some examples with you.

Most of my research over the past two decades is linked to a movement meditation called Quadrato Motor Training (QMT) that demands both coordination and mindfulness.

Practitioners alternate between dynamic movements and static postures, while dividing their attention between their body in the present moment and its location in space. QMT requires a connection between the ‘external’ world and the inner realm by requiring the participant to be intentionally aware of both inner and outer ‘worlds’ simultaneously.

In our research, we found that QMT improved cognitive flexibility. For example, in thinking about a simple glass, most people will associate it with the act of drinking. But following QMT training, additional ‘worlds of content’ can open up – the glass can be viewed as ‘the holy grail’ or a hat.

In fact, our study showed that a seven-minute QMT session increased cognitive flexibility by 25 per cent, compared with other simpler kinds of movement or verbal training. What’s more, EEG measures showed that the enhanced cognitive flexibility associated with QMT training was also accompanied by increased brain synchronisation of the kind previously related to relaxation, attention and a flow state. Some might say QMT also fosters spirituality.

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