Friday, September 7, 2012

The biological basis of spirituality

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

We have stated before in these pages that the spirit represents the profound human dimension. Spirituality, which derives from it, is a way of being, a fundamental attitude, lived out in everyday life -- in the arrangement of the house, in the work at the factory, driving, talking with friends. Suddenly, it bursts like lightning from something deeper and inexplicable. It's the spirit announcing itself. People can consciously open themselves to what is deep and spiritual. Then they become more centered, calmer and radiate peace. They spread an unusual vitality and enthusiasm because they have God within. This inner God is love which, in the words of Dante at the end of each book of The Divine Comedy, "moves heaven and the stars" -- and our own hearts, we would add.

Scientific research says that this spiritual depth has a biological basis. Studies conducted at the end of the 20th century and directed by neurobiologists Michael Persinger and Vilayanur Ramachandran, by neurologist Wolf Singer and by neurolinguist Terrence Deacon, as well as by technicians using modern scanners for brain imaging, have found what they have called "the God point in the brain" ("God spot" or "God module"). People who have given significant space in their lives to the profound, to the spiritual, show a detectably above normal excitation in the frontal lobes of the brain. These lobes are linked to the limbic system, the center of emotions and values. There's a concentration there on what such scientists call the "mystical mind." Such stimulation of the "God spot" isn't linked to an idea or some objective thought. It's activated whenever the person feels emotionally involved in the global contexts that give meaning to life or, implicitly, when one refers to the Sacred, to religious matters or to God directly. It's about emotion not ideation, factors linked to very meaningful experiences that involve a sense of the Whole and something that is unconditional.

More recent studies indicate there may be in fact not just one but many regions of the brain stimulated by the experience of wholeness and holiness. This indicates that the "God spot" may, in fact, be a "God network" comprising zones normally associated with deep emotions that are full of meaning. Other researchers such as Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg have called this phenomenon, as we mentioned before, the "mystical mind."

This mystical mind is part of the more general anthropogenic-cosmogenic process. It represents an evolutionary improvement in the homo species. Just as we are externally endowed with senses by which we apprehend reality through hearing, sight, touch and smell, so we would be enriched internally with an organ through which we grasp the Mystery of the World, making us sensitive to the powerful and loving Energy that runs from point to point throughout the universe and underlies our existence. Religious traditions called it God.

If it is in us, and we are part of the universe, that means this spiritual intelligence is a property of the universe itself. Just because it's in the universe, it might be within us. This is why philosopher and quantum physicist Danah Zohar and psychiatrist Ian Marshall say that man is not only endowed with intellectual and emotional intelligence, but also with spiritual intelligence. This is a fact of life with the same right to belong as libido, self assurance, intelligence and love (SQ: Connecting With Our Spiritual Intelligence, Bloomsbury USA, 2001).

Today, more than ever, it is urgent to give prominence to spiritual intelligence because we live in a culture dulled by materialism and induced consumerism. The effect of this mode of being is well told in contemporary literature: feelings of nausea (Sartre), of being surplus (Marcel), of alienation (Marx), of "helplessness-abandonment" (Heidegger), of being a stranger in one's own land (Camus). In a word, we suffer serious existential illnesses as psychoanalysts Rollo May and Victor Frankl have reported. All this because we blunt spiritual intelligence.

Spirituality helps us get out of this sick and dying culture. The integration of spiritual intelligence with other forms of intelligence -- intellectual and emotional -- opens us to a loving communion with all things and an attitude of respect and reverence for all beings, much more ancient than us. Only then can we reintegrate into the Whole, feel part of the community of life and welcomed as partners in the great cosmic and planetary adventure.

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