Self-transcendence and the brain: new research, old fallacy


Recent advances in neuroscience are revealing the relationships between complex mental processes and brain activity. It is even possible to identify specific brain sites involved in spirituality. But does this mean, then, that spirituality is nothing but a product of the brain — and perhaps a faulty one at that?


A recent study, published in the February 11 issue of the journal Neuron, explores the neural basis of spirituality by studying patients before and after surgery to remove a brain tumor.

Dr. Cosimo Urgesi and colleagues from the University of Udine in Italy were interested in making a direct link between personality, spirituality and brain activity. They focused specifically on a personality trait called self-transcendence, which is thought to be a measure of people’s spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviour. Self-transcendence reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one’s self as an integral part of the universe as a whole.

Recent studies suggest that spiritual experiences involving selflessness and self-transcendence leave signatures in the brain.

The feeling of self-transcendence seems to be linked to the right parietal lobe (the upper rear part of the brain). Brain scans of meditating Buddhist monks show decreased activity in this area, and people with brain damage in the region report feeling more spiritual.

The researchers combined analysis of self-transcendence scores obtained from brain tumor patients before and after they had surgery to remove their tumor, with advanced techniques for mapping the exact location of the brain lesions after surgery.

The team found that selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions induced an immediate increase in reported self-transcendence scores.

Dr. Urgesi concludes:

Our symptom-lesion mapping study is the first demonstration of a causative link between brain functioning and ST. Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness. Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors.

Er, in other words, people who tend to experience self-transcendent states must have some sort of brain impairment!

The pre/trans fallacy

I think this is a classic example of what Ken Wilber refers to as the pre/trans fallacy.

According to Wilber, there are two states of consciousness which are not “rational” as we understand that term. There are pre-rational states, which would include the immature perceptions of small children. And there are post-rational or trans-rational states, which include self-transcendence and direct spiritual experience. Because they both share a departure from common-sense everyday logic, these states can be easily confused with one another. Thus, one can confuse the trans-rational, trans-personal or trans-egoic states of spirituality with the pre-rational, pre-personal or pre-egoic states of early childhood — and madness.

It is difficult if not impossible for the rational mind alone to conceive of any mental state as being higher than its own — until direct experience shows it otherwise. Thus, the trans-rational is often naively reduced to the pre-rational by scientists and other thinkers who simply do not know any better. Freud, for example, considered any mystical state of oneness to be a dysfunctional regression to the “oceanic” state of the foetus in the womb.

A spiritual view of the brain

An alternative view of the relationship between the brain and the self is that the brain is in effect a “reducing valve”, something through which the pure consciousness and energy of the soul are reduced to a lower level of functioning more attuned to physical existence.

In fact, as a result of this study, we could justifiably conclude that the parietal lobe appears to be involved in constructing the fundamental illusion of separation.

Understood in this way, we can see that selectively knocking out certain brain sites could permit more of the underlying unity of being to infuse our consciousness. This is precisely what neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor discovered for herself when she had a stroke. This also appears to be what happens temporarily in deep states of meditation, for example.

The link between brain and spirituality is actually important because it suggests that positive attributes like selflessness can be learned by decreasing activity in certain parts of the brain. Many people are known to achieve this naturally, through meditation or prayer. People with self-transcendent experiences are also found to be more psychologically healthy. Indeed, self-transcendence is one of the hallmarks of self-actualisation, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.

In a statement, Dr. Salvatore M. Aglioti, from Sapienza University of Rome, said that if self-transcendence can change quickly as a result of brain damage,

it would indicate that at least some personality dimensions may be modified by influencing neural activity in specific areas. Perhaps novel approaches aimed at modulating neural activity might ultimately pave the way to new treatments of personality disorders.

I guess he is suggesting that we might be able to alter the brain in ways that will help people with such things as paranoid personality disorder. I just hope these researchers are not imagining that one day it will be possible (or desirable) to eliminate spirituality through such “corrective” treatments!


The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence. (C. Ursegi, S. M. Aglioti, M. Skrap & F. Fabbro) Neuron, Volume 65, Issue 3, 11 February 2010, Pages 309-319.

ABSTRACT: The predisposition of human beings toward spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors is measured by a supposedly stable personality trait called self-transcendence. Although a few neuroimaging studies suggest that neural activation of a large fronto-parieto-temporal network may underpin a variety of spiritual experiences, information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking. Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence. Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness. These results hint at the active, crucial role of left and right parietal systems in determining self-transcendence and cast new light on the neurobiological bases of altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors in neurological and mental disorders.


2 thoughts on “Self-transcendence and the brain: new research, old fallacy

  1. Oh for goodness sake….please try to comprehend………..
    the brain is just a tool , a means to experience — whatever we choose to experience…
    We program the brain to be/act as we need , in order to have exactly what we have…………..THIS LIFE .
    There isn’t now , never has been or will be “self-transcendence”….we are and have always been …………PERFECT
    Try to comprehend this ILLUSION of the physical .

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