A matter of choice

Overall, our study revealed that spiritual experiences are visible in the brain in three significant ways:

  • an involuntary reorientation of attention
  • a sense of love or embrace consistent with intimate attachment or bonding
  • a sense of self that is both distinct and part of the greater oneness

For the first time, we could see in the scanner that spiritual awakening involves self-transcendent awareness and relationship. And that spiritual experiences induce a feeling of unity or closeness whether or not the content is explicitly relational. When we get over ourselves, or out of ourselves, we have a feeling of connection. We go from being a point to being a wave.

We’d found the sites where that movement from point to wave happens – the sites of our connection to awakened awareness. The ventral attention network is where we see that the world is alive and talking to us; the frontotemporal network is where we feel the warm, loving embrace of others and of life itself; and the parietal love is where we know we matter, belong, and are never alone.

Staring at the dispersions of color across the scans, it occurred to me that I was witnessing not only a representation of how we can feel better and safer in the world, the “small self” perspective dissolving into a more expansive and complete worldview. I was also watching the mysterious process by which poems, symphonies, and innovations are born – with presence to reality, openness to new perceptions and information, and the capacity to transform perceptions into ideas, insights, meaning, and action. We’d found the neural docking station of love, unity, and guidance.

Two truths struck me as particularly potent and significant. First, the moments of intense spiritual awareness were biologically identical whether or not they were explicitly religious, physiologically the same whether the experience occurred in a house of worship or on a forest hike in the “cathedral of nature.” They had the same level of felt intensity and the same pathways of fMRI activation – the same functioning neural correlates. This proved that every single one of us has a spiritual part of the brain that we can engage anywhere, at any time. For thousands of years, humanity has waged so-called religious wars and conflicts. But here, plain as day, I could see that we all use the same spiritual part of our brain. People of all different religions, people who are nonreligious and spiritual, engage the same neural correlates of spiritual perception. 

And this engagement appeared to be a matter of choice. The same healthy young adult brain could be used for stress – for isolation, helplessness, worry, addiction, and craving – or for spiritual engagement. The same person, with the same outward life, IQ, socioeconomic status, friends, genes, family, and environment, could see a world that looked abundant and bright, or empty and insufficient. What participants saw and experienced was determined by how they marshaled their own inner life. By making a choice in perception, the same person could be either awake or strung out.

From “The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life” by Lisa Miller, PhD