Spirituality, Mindfulness and the Brain

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” ― Carl Sagan

Mindfulness training has been shown to alter the brain in profound ways. It activates certain areas of the nervous system and if practiced for a period of time it will alter the brain structurally, increasing the size and connectivity of some areas. These significant changes will be reviewed in an upcomiong post.

 There has also been research into how spirituality and spiritual experiences affect the nervous system. There has been, however, very little study of brain activity during spiritual practice. As a result it is unclear the extent that spiritual and mindfulness practices affect similar or different brain areas.

In today’s Research News article “How similar are the changes in neural activity resulting from mindfulness practice in contrast to spiritual practice?”


Barnby and colleagues summarize the research on brain activation produced by the practices of mindfulness, spirituality, or both. In this research spiritual practice was defined as focusing on an internal and external sense of connection to a higher entity, or embodiment.

They find that mindfulness practice that is either secular or spiritual or both increase the activity, size, and connectivity of the prefrontal cortex. This area has been associated with executive function including planning, complex thinking, and decision making, all of which improve with mindfulness practice. It is also associated with the regulation of emotions and responses to emotions. These are again traits associated with mindfulness practice. So, regardless of whether the practice is secular or spiritual these same benefits accrue in parallel with similar patterns of brain activation.

In contrast mindfulness practice that is secular produces varying changes in the parietal lobe while spiritual practice tends to reduce parietal lobe activity. The parietal lobe has been implicated in producing a sense of self as distinct from the environment and others. Hence, spiritual practice, by focusing on powers outside of the self, tends to reduce self-referential thinking. Spiritual practitioners think more about a deity than of themselves. This is reflected both in self-reports and behavior and also in their brains.

So, engage in spiritual and mindfulness practices and reap their benefits.


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