A Neural Circuit for Spirituality and Religiosity Derived From Patients With Brain Lesions

  • Michael A. Ferguson
    Address correspondence to Michael A. Ferguson, Ph.D.
    Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics, Department of Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

    Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Frederic L.W.V.J. Schaper
    Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics, Department of Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

    Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Neurology, Maastricht University Medical Center, Maastricht, the Netherlands
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  • Alexander Cohen
    Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Neurology, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Shan Siddiqi
    Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics, Department of Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

    Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Psychiatry, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Psychiatry, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois
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  • Sarah M. Merrill
    Department of Medical Genetics, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
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  • Jared A. Nielsen
    Department of Psychology, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
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  • Jordan Grafman
    Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois

    Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Think + Speak Lab, Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, Chicago, Illinois
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  • Cosimo Urgesi
    Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Languages and Literatures, Communication, Education and Society, University of Udine, Udine, Italy
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  • Franco Fabbro
    Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Languages and Literatures, Communication, Education and Society, University of Udine, Udine, Italy
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  • Michael D. Fox
    Center for Brain Circuit Therapeutics, Department of Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

    Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

    Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, Department of Neurology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

    Athinoula A. Martinos Centre for Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
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      Over 80% of the global population consider themselves religious, with even more identifying as spiritual, but the neural substrates of spirituality and religiosity remain unresolved.


      In two independent brain lesion datasets (N1 = 88; N2 = 105), we applied lesion network mapping to test whether lesion locations associated with spiritual and religious belief map to a specific human brain circuit.


      We found that brain lesions associated with self-reported spirituality map to a brain circuit centered on the periaqueductal gray. Intersection of lesion locations with this same circuit aligned with self-reported religiosity in an independent dataset and previous reports of lesions associated with hyper-religiosity. Lesion locations causing delusions and alien limb syndrome also intersected this circuit.


      These findings suggest that spirituality and religiosity map to a common brain circuit centered on the periaqueductal gray, a brainstem region previously implicated in fear conditioning, pain modulation, and altruistic behavior.


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      Linked Article

      • Toward a Neurobiological Explanation of Mystical Experience
        Biological PsychiatryVol. 91Issue 4
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          We have long known that religious or mystical experiences are brain-based phenomena, thanks in part to studies in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy and Gastaut–Geschwind syndrome (1), pharmacological interventions such as psilocybin (2), and demonstrations of unique patterns of neural activity after mystical state induction (3,4). In the current issue of Biological Psychiatry, Ferguson et al. (5) use human lesion evidence to postulate a common neural network for these deeply emotional, self-transcendent mystical experiences.
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