Medically speaking, it was just brain surgery. But for some patients, it was a spiritual reawakening.
Researchers report in a new study today that they have found regions of the brain that seem to impact a person's level of spirituality.
The researchers worked with 88 patients with tumors in various locations in the brain and found that those with damage in the parietal region -- located in the top rear region of the brain -- could be seen to have a change in their attitude toward spirituality, something that tends to be relatively constant in a person.
"This finding highlights the key role of parietal cortices in spirituality and suggests that changes of neural activity in specific areas may modify even inherently stable dispositional traits," explained Cosimo Urgesi, one of the study's lead researchers and an assistant professor in psychobiology and physiological psychology at the University of Udine in Italy.
The specific scale researchers used to determine spirituality is known as self-transcendence, a measure used to determine spirituality that appears to remain stable in a person over time.
The tumors researchers based on their findings on were gliomas, the same type of brain tumor with which doctors diagnosed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, that affects the brain tissue itself. Meningiomas, another type of brain tumor that does not affect tissue, did not have an impact on people in the study when removed, Urgesi said.
After the removal of gliomas from the rear of the brain, those patients showed a significant elevation in their level of self-transcendence.
The findings appear in the newest issue of the journal Neuron.
"You remove brain tissue and you get an enhancement of something," said Patrick McNamara, director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine.
He explained that the implication of this "paradoxical" finding is that the front and rear areas of the brain work in sync to regulate the level of spirituality of the brain. With the rear tissue damaged, the front controls more of the brain, raising the spirituality level.
Overall, McNamara said, the study presents intriguing results with a strong scientific basis. The one thing he would have liked to have seen more, he said, was an evaluation of peoples' moods to see the impact of their changes in spirituality.
"We don't know to what extent changes in their spiritual experiences were related to changes in mood," he said.
While agreeing that the study presents an important line of inquiry, Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, cautioned that the findings of the study should not be drawn too broadly.
"Yes, there are probably areas of the brain that enable us to have spiritual experiences, because the brain controls all of our experiences, so there's obviously got to be a part that experiences spiritual experiences," said Koenig.
His caution, he said, stems from the use of self-transcendence, which measures things that are not directly related to religion and does not measure other parts that are.
"Religion involves a lot more than just spiritual experiences," he said, listing commitments, community, and beliefs about conduct and behavior among areas not covered b the scale.
Self-transcendence, Koenig explained, can also often encompass things like belief in ESP and the paranormal, which would not necessarily be considered a part of religion.
"There are neurological areas of the brain that enable us to have spiritual experiences, but it's very different than the religious involvement and practice and beliefs, per se, which are not always based on experiences," said Koenig. "There's only so much that we can conclude from a study like this. This is interesting research that provides some clues for future avenues to pursue, but it is only one study."
McNamara said that while spirituality may be an important component in religion, this study also indicates an important physical component.
"If there's a God, then he communicates with us via our minds, via our brains, via our bodies," he said. "The brain matters, your body matters."
While some religions over time have dismissed the importance of the physical world, "All the orthodox religions say 'No, the body really matters.' These sorts of results confirm that," he said.
The significance of the frontal lobe displayed by this study, he said, also points to a "talent" some might have for religion, akin to the ability some people have with language or mathematics that gives them superior ability in the area.
"It tells us about why certain people find it easier to be spiritually religious," he explained. "Down through the centuries, we have seen that there are some spiritual geniuses."
McNamara listed as examples Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., along with Jesus, Mohammed and Moses.
"These people had special talents, there's no question about it."