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March 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Neuropsychologist George “Brick” Johnstone points his finger at a black and white photograph pinned to a crowded bulletin board on his office wall. The image shows a large hole that measures about two inches in diameter in the back of a bald man’s head. “He was struck by lightning,” Johnstone says. “You could fit a V8 can inside that hole.”
Traumatic brain injuries in relation to religion sparked Johnstone’s interest about six years ago and led him to wonder if part of the human brain is dedicated to spirituality.
Johnstone’s plan to peek inside the damaged minds of the righteous developed years before he became a full-time neuropsychologist. When he first began working with the spirituality and health research team, Johnstone read a study on Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns who volunteered to have their brains monitored during meditation and prayer. When the subjects reached the most heightened points of their meditative states, the brain scans showed increased neural blood flow in the frontal lobe and left parietal lobes. The right parietal lobe showed decreased activity. Johnstone found this remarkable and later published articles on the right parietal lobe’s role in spirituality.
In 2004, the 42-year-old doctor and his research team at MU studied actively religious patients with critical brain injuries such as blunt trauma. The team distributed a survey to the patients. The Index of Core Spiritual Experiences is composed of 19 questions about personal spiritual experiences, time devoted to religious practices and the degree of intimacy felt between the patient and his or her god. The survey asked participants to mark each question from 1 (low) to 4 (high), and the mean of the answered questions measured a spiritual score. Those scores would then be used to see how the human brain’s physical condition affected the individual’s spiritual experiences.
At the MU Center on Religion and the Professions, Johnstone and his group of researchers examined 26 injured patients. They focused on an individual with the worst functioning right parietal lobe, the part of the brain that monitors perception of self, including self-criticism and awareness. This patient reported the highest score in spiritual experience. Those who suffer damages to the right parietal lobe receive less blood flow to that area and are likely to experience decreased self-awareness, allowing their thoughts to remain selfless. According to Johnstone, this means people with decreased self-awareness are more likely to lead spiritual lives and focus on things beyond the self.
MU Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Dan Cohen, who has worked alongside Johnstone for three years, finds his studies brilliant. He believes the research might indicate that a person can become more spiritual by silencing the part of the brain that monitors self-awareness and by participating in prayer or meditation. “The implications are that people can increase these vital moral qualities through voluntary practices, which could have very positive implications for improving the quality of life for all and even for the future survival of humanity.” In simpler terms, people can become better by ditching their selfishness. It’s science.