There's a report in New Scientist this week that neurologists may have found the location in our brains that is related to feelings of "transcendence". Scientists have been looking for the "seat of religion" for years now, and the research just published may be the breakthrough they needed.
"By observing brain cancer patients before and after brain surgery, researchers in Italy have found that damage to the posterior part of the brain, specifically in an area called the parietal cortex, can increase patients’ feelings of ‘self transcendence,’ or feeling at one with the universe. The parietal cortex is the region that is is usually involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation.
The study, led by psychologist Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine in Italy, surveyed 88 brain cancer patients before and after surgery to remove their tumors. They were made to fill out a questionnaire regarding their beliefs, including a section to check their measure of ‘self-transcendence.’ People score highly for this trait if they answer ‘yes’ to questions 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’. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.
The scientists found that before the surgery, patients with parietal cortex tumors reported higher levels of self-transcendence than patients with tumors in the frontal cortex. After the tumors were removed, the parietal cortex patients had even higher self-transcendence scores, while the frontal cortex patients showed no change."
Read the full account here.