Neurosurgical patients get closer to God

REMOVAL of specific parts of the brain can induce increases in a personality trait which predisposes people to spirituality, according to a new clinical study by Italian researchers. The new research, published earlier this month in the journal Neuron, provides evidence that some brain structures are associated with spiritual thinking and feelings, and hints at individual differences that might make some people more prone than others to spirituality.

Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine and his colleagues combined pre- and post-surgical personality assessments with advanced lesion mapping techniques to correlate changes in self-transcendence with brain structures in a total of 88 patients with brain tumours of different types and severity. 24 of the patients were being treated for high-grade glioma, which arises from astrocytes and is malignant; 24 had low-grade, or benign glioma; 20 were having a second operation to treat highly aggressive recurrent glioma; and 20 had meningioma, which arises in the membranes enveloping the brain but does not affect the brain itself.

Within each of these four groups, approximately half of the patients had tumours located toward the front of the brain in the frontal and temporal lobes, while in the rest the tumours were further back, around the junction between the occipital, temporal and parietal lobes. During formal interviews conducted prior to the surgery, they asked each of the patients about aspects of their religion-related behaviour and experiences. Some of the questions were designed to measure three different aspects of self-transcendency: creative self-forgetfulness, or the ability to “lose one’s self” in the moment; transpersonal identification, or the extent to which one feels connected to other people and to the natural world; and spiritual acceptance, or belief in a supernatural power.

Comparing the interview results of the four groups of patients together, the researchers found that more patients with posterior than anterior lesions judged themselves to be religious, and that these patients also obtained higher self-transcendence scores. When the results of each group were analysed separately, it was found that those patients with the most aggressive of the four types of tumour in posterior regions – high-grade gliomas and recurrent gliomas – were the most likely to describe themselves as religious. The recurrent glioma patients, all of whom had undergone surgery several months earlier, reported mystical experiences (such as experiencing the presence of God, or having visions during prayer) more frequently than those with anterior tumours, and also had the highest self-transcendence scores prior to being operated on the second time.

brain tumours spirituality.JPG

This relationship between the location of the tumour and the patients’ reports of changes in spirituality was also corroborated after the surgery. Following removal of the tumours, significant increases in self-transcendence scores were observed in those patients who had tumours removed from the posterior regions of the brain, but not from those whose tumours were further towards the front of the brain. Specifically, this increase was associated with surgical removal of two distinct regions of the brain: the left inferior parietal lobule and the right angular gyrus (above).

By contrast, a small reduction in self-transcendence was observed in those patients who had tumours removed from anterior regions of the brain. No change was observed in the meningioma patients, but they served as a useful control group. Meningiomas can be surgically removed through a hole in the skull (craniotomy) while leaving the brain tissue intact. The fact that none of these patients experienced significant changes in self-transcendence following the surgery rules out the possibility that the changes observed in the other patients occurred as a result of the craniotomies performed on them.

The increased self-transcendence in patients with posterior tumours was observed just several days after removal of the cancerous tissue. This suggests that the changes reported by the patients occured because the structures which were removed had a specific role, and not because the brain slowly adapts to their removal. Furthermore, the observation that the group of patients with recurrent gliomas in posterior regions had high self-transcendence scores prior to having their tumours a second time suggests that the changes are not only rapid but also long-lasting.

It is well documented that posterior regions of the parietal lobe are involved in various aspects of bodily self-awareness, including the perception of one’s body in relation to its surroundings.  Damage to the left posterior parietal cortex, for example, causes deficits in awareness of the spatial relationships between different body parts; lesions in the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes in the right hemisphere are associated with delusions in which patients deny owning their limbs; and damage to the left and right temporo-parietal junction can cause the illusion that the self is located within the extrapersonal space surrounding the body and out-of-body experiences, respectively.

The authors describe their findings within this context. Ablation of tissue near the temporo-parietal junction, especially in the inferior parietal lobe, causes a reduced sense of bodily awareness, so that the boundary between self and non-self become blurred. This detachment from the body increases the patients’ propensity for mystical experiences. Supporting this conclusion, earlier work has shown that the mystical experiences of Tibetan Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns are associated with altered parietal lobe activity. 

One major drawback of the study is that it is based entirely on the patients’ own reports of self-transcendence. The results would have been more rigorous if based on an objective measure of the phenomenon. Furthermore, self-transcendence is a vague concept which means different things to different people. The authors’ definition of it is therefore somewhat narrow, as there is more to this trait than the three aspects measured by them. It is also unlikely that a trait such as self-transcendence can be localized to just two regions of the brain. Likewise, spirituality is an extremely complex phenomenon of which self-transcendence is but one aspect.

Nevertheless, the finding that the feeling of self-transcendence can be modulated  by specific brain lesions provides some insights into the biological roots of spirituality, and Urgesi is now planning to investigate whether changes in self-transcendence can be induced by perturbing parietal lobe activity with an experimental technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation.


Urgesi, C., et al. (2010). The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence. Neuron 65: 309-319. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.026.

Beauregard, M. & Paquette, V. (2006). Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neurosci. Lett. 405: 186-190. [PDF]

Blanke, O. & Mohr, C. (2005). Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin Implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self consciousness. Brain Res. Rev. 50: 184-199. [PDF]

14 thoughts on “Neurosurgical patients get closer to God

  1. I wonder if these physical brain findings could be combined with information about alterations in religious beliefs apparently induced by anti-psychotic drugs? At the psychiatric unit where I used to work as a researcher sometimes there were Christian preachers brought in during highly agitated states. They had delusions that they were the messiah or saint, that the devil was sitting on their shoulder tempting them, or that some great religious truth had just been revealed and they must take over a TV station to inform everyone etc. When treated with chlorpromazine, they gradually lost their delusions, but some also lost ALL their beliefs and “callings” to preach. The psychiatrists used to half-jokingly report that they had to titrate the dose of antipsychotics so that these patients retained enough of their religious zeal to maintain their job or relationships with their church communities! Obviously there are functional and neurochemical influences in there, as well as inhibitory and excitatory pathways that allow “thoughts” to be shunted around so that some become more “spiritual”. Intriguing. How about looking at some depressed or apathetic patients who never find anything remotely inspiring as comparisons?

  2. I find this fascinating. Even more so because I know someone who I think has been affected this way, given her personality changes after certain events.
    A related question, which I don’t know if you can answer: Is it possible for certain (localised, relatively confined) regions of the brain to be damaged by seizures?

  3. @Murfomurf: You’re talking about delusions of grandeur and/ or persecution, which are common symptoms of schizophrenia. It’s not surprising that they disappear with anti-psychotics, but it is very interesting that these drugs can cause a loss of religious belief; I’ve never heard that before.
    @Luna_the_cat: Yes, so-called ‘partial’ seizures can be localized to specific parts of the brain. Temporal lobe epilepsy is also associated with religious experiences. See this paper about sudden religious conversion in temporal lobe epileptics, and also my post about Dostoyevsy’s epilepsy.

  4. @ Murfomurf: it is also possible that the powerful neuroleptic reduced patients’ motivation so seriously that they lost all calling to religion. You know, chlorpromazine is one of the worst “chemical restraints”, so it is possible that pretty much total apathy made it impossible for a priest to carry out their job. Just my thoughts. I don’t know whether there is any research on the effect of such drugs on brain circuits supposed in spiritual beliefs.

  5. Even before I became psychotic, I was open to the spiritual world. But when I became psychotic, my interaction with the spiritual world increased dramatically. After my hospitalization, when I was blasted full of meds, the connection with God and the spiritual world was permanently severed. Although I want to breathe life back into it, I can’t do it. I can’t even pray. Now I just go around “dead” to the spiritual world, but at least my psychotic episode is gone.

  6. A small correction. I’ve had 3 craniotomies, most recently Feb 9 of this year, and I do not have any kind of meningiomas. I have glioblastoma multiforme stage 4. My cancer is in the anterior region of the brain, but I’m not sure it’s fair to say that we can use meningiomas as a control. That stands to reason. The method of removal should not affect the essential fact that invasive surgeries in the posterior regions of the brain lead to heightened, I’ll call it spirituality, while less invasive surgeries in the anterior regions of the brain, where mine is, do not.

  7. My view is that the brain is a constituent of consciousness rather than its originating agent. Man, in his “creation” is vested with characteristics giving potential along diverse plains of expression. Spirituality is one of those plains.
    I am a non-scientists, so my thoughts are to be viewed from a philosophical view to an appreciable extent. However, there’s tangible evidence in my view of there being a transcendent reality. Out of body, astral travel, near death, remote viewing, etc. give a sense of experience that are not attributable to materiality. I’ll leave my thoughts here for now. I just found this site and will probably return to participate in its range of topics.

  8. Dr Michael Persinger, at the Laurentian University in Canada, some years ago was able to induce hallucinations of a religious nature, using electrodes placed on the heads of subjects immersed in sensory deprivation tanks.

  9. One study is hardly enough to convince me that a belief in God is simply due to some kind of mental deficiency. I think it’s more likely that people who are suffering from cancer that they have been told will likely be terminal are prone to begin pondering questions about God and what happens after death. I see no proof of causation.

  10. Bob-I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that it’s a result of the fact that someone is suffering from cancer. Someone very close to me has had 5 brain surgeries over the past 20ish years, NONE to remove cancerous tumors – thankfully they were all benign and recovery in all cases was amazing. After the most recent surgery there has been a very noticeable increase in this person’s spirituality. It didn’t just appear out of nowhere, there was a definite foundation prior to the surgery. This person was already a Christian and had a fairly solid relationship with Christ; but since the surgery less than 2 years ago…I guess I would say the 1st & 2nd floors have been built on that foundation and work on the roof is steadily progressing. Not that it’s a bad thing, because I don’t necessarily think it is, but this has definitely got me pondering the “what if’s”…..
    This article and topic are, for obvious reasons, very interesting to me. I will definitely be doing more research on this topic.

  11. Douglas – I agree. Man trying to “learn” more about what he is, what is around him and what he is meant to do in life are all questions people try to answer daily. Unfortunately, people are limited to the physical realm/reality and have limited knowledge due to this. Man can only see as far as his science can allow him. I mean, people used to believe the earth was flat; Man has come a long way since those days. I believe that God has instilled in us ways in which we can communicate, sense, and perceive the spiritual realm. How else could Adam have “walked” with God in the Garden of Eden? Man is just learning about what, how, and where this takes place due to in his limited scientific abilities. If anything this research only proves that there IS a mechanism designed into man that creates a gateway to the spiritual realm and ultimately God.

  12. Please don’t rule out the fact that we may be obstructed in our views of the true reality by these portions of the brain. In Christianity, we belieive that when you make a commitment to God and accept and turn your life over to him, he changes you. This change is ongoing through out your life. However, a major change takes place at the moment of acceptence. Prehaps this is the proof of such a change. I would like to see a wider study of devotely religous people and not just subjects with tumors.

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