Current Understanding Of Religion, Spirituality, And Their Neurobiological Correlates

Rim, James I.; Ojeda, Jesse Caleb; Svob, Connie; Kayser, Jürgen; Drews, Elisa; Kim, Youkyung; Tenke, Craig E.; Skipper, Jamie; Weissman, Myrna M.

Religion and spirituality (R/S) have been prominent aspects of most human cultures through the ages; however, scientific inquiry into this phenomenon has been limited. We conducted a systematic literature review of research on the neurobiological correlates of R/S, which resulted in 25 reports studying primarily R/S with electroencephalography, structural neuroimaging (MRI), and functional neuroimaging (fMRI, PET). These studies investigated a wide range of religions (e.g., Christianity, Buddhism, Islam) and R/S states and behaviors (e.g., resting state, prayer, judgments) and employed a wide range of methodologies, some of which (e.g., no control group, varying measures of religiosity, small sample sizes) raise concerns about the validity of the results. Despite these limitations, the findings of these studies collectively suggest that the experience of R/S has specific neurobiological correlates and that these correlates are distinct from non-R/S counterparts. The findings implicate several brain regions potentially associated with R/S development and behavior, including the medial frontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, precuneus, posterior cingulate cortex, default mode network, and caudate. This research may suggest future clinical applications and interventions related to R/S and various disorders, including mood, anxiety, psychotic, pain, and vertiginous disorders. Further studies with more rigorous study designs are warranted to elucidate the neurobiological mechanisms of R/S and their potential clinical applications.


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Harvard Review of Psychiatry

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February 1, 2022