Religious thinking has been tied to various brain regions before, but a new study (abstract) moves things a big step forward. By measuring indicators of religiosity in brain-cancer patients before and after surgery to remove their tumors, a team of researchers in Italy has found that damage to a specific region of the brain (the posterior parietal cortex) can increase a person’s feelings of “self-transcendence,” or the feeling of being connected to others and to the universe.
The parietal cortex has previously been linked to maintaining one’s sense of self — such as in keeping track of the locations of one’s various body parts.
The researchers surveyed 88 brain-cancer patients before and after surgery, asking them to answer “yes” or “no” to statements such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism;” and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time.” People who answered “yes” to these statements score high on the trait of self-transcendence. The same people who score high on this measure are also prone to belief in things like miracles and ESP.
What the researchers found was that people who came in with tumors in the posterior parietal cortex scored higher on self transcendence before surgery than other patients, who came in with tumors in the frontal cortex. After the tumor removal, the patients who’d had tumors in the posterior parietal cortex scored even higher on self-transcendence. Patients who’d had tumors in the frontal cortex showed no change on that trait after the surgery.
This is certainly interesting, but I resist the equation of "self-transcendence" with "religion." As one the Nature commenters put it, the study only considered “one self-report measure, which is a coarse measure that includes some strange items.” I have complained before about the notion that spirituality can be equated with belief in ESP or a sense that "everything feels like one single organism." I believe that one can be religious without denying reality. I have seen no data that would connect a high score on quizzes like this one with attendance at worship or other sorts of religious behavior, and I don't see why we should consider it an important indicator of religion.