Field of Science

The brain surgery path to transcendence

Transcendence: the belief that you are connected in ineffable ways to the world around you, that you are not limited by your body but can go beyond it in mysterious ways.

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

Now a new study has taken a closer look in patients undergoing surgery for brain tumours. Using a sensitive measure of spirituality and accurate mapping of the brain lesion, they were able to tie down the relationships to two specific brain regions, shown in the image.

One of these is located in the right parietal lobe, and the other in the left parietal lobe. These parts of the brain are linked to awareness of where your body (and body parts) is in space.

So these results support the idea the transcendental experiences are caused by a loss of function in these key brain areas. What's interesting was the effect was both immediate (it happened straight after surgery) and prolonged (it was detectable in patients who had previously been operated on for a tumour in the same area).

And feeling more transcendental seemed to turn them on to religion. Patients whose brain tumours were located in this area reported being more religious even before surgery. So if somebody you know suddenly takes up churchgoing, you might want to refer them to your friendly, local neurologist!

ResearchBlogging.orgUrgesi, C., Aglioti, S., Skrap, M., & Fabbro, F. (2010). The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence Neuron, 65 (3), 309-319 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.026

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. They should do a scan while the patient is "getting off' on LSD or N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

    DMT is a natural occurring (in the human too) entheogen.

    David Mc

  2. So if somebody you know suddenly takes up churchgoing, you might want to refer them to your friendly, local neurologist!

    This was always true, even before this paper was published.

  3. Have you ever had such a feeling, really, naturally Bjørn, Tom? I've only had it once. David Mc

  4. If meditation decreases activity in the right parietal lobe.... Then there should be a decreased attachment to spatial relations.

    Simple enough....

    If you can conceive of yourself in a way not connected to body image and spatial relations....

    cogito ergo sum ring a bell?

    I'm just thinking out loud here.... but "part of brain that links awareness of body and spatial relations - off" would lead to transcendental experiences.... I guess I'm asking for you to build some philosophy and meaning from this. The facts make perfect sense.... but what we are supposed to draw from them isn't as clear. I get that we are supposed to get that it provides a physical explanation for transcendent experience.... but what would you say this has to offer for philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and the question of experiencing and interpreting transcendent states?

    Take me further.

    *ironically: my word verification was "suffi." Almost "Sufi." :-)

  5. "So, the God Spot is a void?"

    No, The British AVIOD the G spot. David Mc

  6. make that avoid of course, or just deny if you prefer.

  7. I wrote a post objecting to a certain tone of voice I hear in this post. I may be mistaken, and this is one of my favorite blogs. Tom, if you have a chance, give the post a look and tell me if I am wrong.

    Are transcendent experiences necessarily pathological or a matter of malfunction?

  8. Konrad: heh, yes! Or, perhaps we could say they have located the 'atheist spot'.

  9. Samuel, I don't think you can read too much from a philosophical perspective into this. Experience is a function of brain activity, so the fact that you can affect correlate brain activity with certain experiences is to be expected.

    But the brain is not a 'reality engine' - it's a survival engine. So how you choose to interpret experiences - however generated - is to a degree subjective. It doesn't follow from these results that transcendental experiences are necessarily the product of a dysfunctional brain.

    In other words, this should only impact your philosophizing if you did not previously realize that the mind is a product of the brain.

    To go into this a bit deeper, this particular experience is generated by reducing the activity of particular brain regions. That's interesting because we normally think of experiences as being generated by brain activity.

  10. Sabio, absolutely not - and I mention in the post that meditating monks who achieve a transcendental state show reduced brain activity in this region under MRI. What this study shows is that the transcendental experience is connected to precisely the brain region that you might expect it to be. You can train your brain to do that, you can get it as a result of brain damage, or it could just happen as a result of normal brain function (if your brain is so inclined!).

  11. 'atheist spot'

    That's a gem Tom. I was thinking along similar lines. David Mc

  12. I think there is a possible naturalistic fallacy behind these conversations: the natural brain is good and desirable. Maybe we have to potential to go beyond our genetic hinderances and not see things the way our genes desire us to see them. For certainly our genes care not for our happiness.

    The ability to turn on and off these aspects of the brain and then integrate those perception into everyday life may be much more desirable than what the brain wants us to have.

  13. All we can say about the brain is that it's optimised (as far as evolution can manage) to maximise survival reproduction in conditions found in our evolutionary past. Is it possible to make the brain better? Well, it depends on how you define better! What metrics are you going to use? I don't doubt that people could, on average, be more intelligent than we currently are.

  14. "All we can say about the brain is that it's optimised (as far as evolution can manage) to maximise survival reproduction in conditions found in our evolutionary past"
    -- Tom

    I am not a biologist, nor up on the the debates among evolutionists, but the word "optimised" strikes me as being in error. Though I know in programming, evolutionary mechanisms are employed in optimization algorithms, I don't view evolution as "optimazation".

    For one, descendant lines die off quickly due to accidents of geography, war, disasters etc and not by mere competition. "Fit-enough-for-now" is more of my image.

    All to say, I can see why an "optimization" view can lead to the naturalistic fallacy I spoke of earlier.

    But, I agree that defining "better" is part of the trick in any humanly contrived optimization attempts.

  15. Sabio, there are two different basic issues here. I think you are quite right to pull up Tom on the word 'optimisation' and I was about to do it myself. The word I think he should have used is 'satisficing', which comes from Herbert Simon and indicates obtaining a locally adequate solution. I agree that optimisation is not something that is possible for organisms - check out Simon's Reason in Human Affairs for a light intro to the theoretical background behind that claim.

    Even if Tom insists on 'optimisation' you do not get the kinds of consequences you fear, however. To do that you would have to explicitly equate survival, which is a matter of fact, with some sort of value judgement. Otherwise you get to, at most, use the word 'better' in the very specific sense that one can talk about better viruses being those that are more capable of spreading themselves through the human population. Even then you do not get to the point where you can actually compare in value terms completely different species however - humans and viruses, for example. For that you'd need to add a notion of universal progress, something that is explicitly rejected by Darwin and pretty much every other biologist. Where you definitely can talk about satisficing is about individual traits of an organism, the judgement being relative to the organism's niche.

  16. just a quick note (I'm travelling) to say that when I put the caveat to the "optimised" - as far as evolution will allow - I was thinking of exactly yhe points you're making. Evolution operates under a number of restraints - not de novo, works within a fitness landscape, subject to random drift etc. So we should not expect the brain to be optimal, but rather we need to understand what it has been optimised (within evolutionary constraints) for.

  17. You gentlemen are far more savvy on the details of these theories, but Tom's new restatement seems no different than his first. Perhaps I am misunderstanding. Or perhaps it is the normal connotations of "optimization" which seems to be my issue. I prefer the word "satisficing' given by Konrad (from Simon) and think it escapes these connotations. But I don't think this is a battle of words and that Konrad and Tom perhaps hold different positions. For as I browsed this morning, I think I have touched upon a significant debate in evolutionary biology circles concerning optimization and my objection is pointing toward that schism -- am I correct?

    Certainly Tom & I agree that the brain is not "optimal" in an unqualified sense -- no one would debate that, however. But I don't think it is optimal for survival in any meaningful sense either. It satisfies enough to allow successful reproduction at this point in history, but that could all change quickly. If DIT (Dual Inheritance Theory) is correct, could we not decide culturally to put more weight on happiness than, for instance, maximum resources and alter the evolution of the brain? Thus, in a way, I am saying that our present brains are not optimized to our values and we are deciding to change them. I am not sure of the meaning of "Transhumanism" (a new word for me from 8 months ago), but maybe that is the classic position I am putting forth. And I don't feel I am nitpicking words, because I think we are saying significantly different things on this point (though our overlap of agreement is otherwise large).

    To further illustrate our potential differences, take this statement in your article:
    "So these results support the idea the transcendental experiences are caused by a loss of function in these key brain areas."

    My questions are:

    When meditators turn down areas of the right parietal lobe and transcendental experiences are felt ... :

    a) is your use of the word "loss of function" distorting -- though this certainly happens in those with surgery or trauma. We intentional meditators, they are turned down and not loss. And the studies only show decreased activity and not what parts are still active at that time.

    b) could the meditator be increasing or altering other areas as well as turning down activity in the right parietal area?

    c) maybe it is not the sensation of transcendentalism that the practitioner is pursuing but the benefits such brain activities bequest and "transcendentalism" is just a bi-product.

    Thanx for your time, Tom

  18. I suppose if we optimize our cultures for future survival. The biology might follow. David Mc

  19. Hi Sabio,

    Broadly speaking, I'm coming into this from my background as a biologist. When I say that the brain is optimised for survival, it's because that's what evolution does. Those brains that increase survival and reproduction will predominate.

    There's a reason we find quantum mechanics so tricky. It's because our brains have not evolved to solve those kinds of equations - there's no need for it on the Savannah! That we can do it at all is a byproduct of our brain's true function (from an evolutionary standpoint).

    That's not to say that doing quantum mechanics is not a good thing. What's more, it could well be the case that if you shut down some bits of the brain, you might be better at it (by freeing up the mathematical parts of your brain to focus on the problem).

    So I'm not making a value judgement about transcendence. More of a factual one. If you shut down the bits of the brain responsible for bodily awareness, then you are more likely to experience transcendental feelings.

    That might open up all sorts of other possibilities - from a self-awareness perspective, or whatever. But on the savannah, it might also lead to you getting eaten by a lion...

  20. Interesting, and the end made me laugh.."So if somebody you know suddenly takes up churchgoing, you might want to refer them to your friendly, local neurologist!"
    The Atheist Perspective

  21. Really interesting. Considering this alongside Jill Bolte Taylor's story, and this symptom list of kundalini awakening events, I now believe that my own "transcendent" experiences were most likely caused by small seizures. They stopped about eight years ago. These days, I just get migraines.

  22. Well, yeah - the experience of universal consciousness was more fun than the blinding pain, but the latter is less confusing.


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