Field of Science

The transcendant temporal lobe

The temporal lobe of the brain - the bit just above where your ear is - keeps cropping up in studies of spirituality.

In this latest one, Peter Van Schuerbeek and colleagues from the University of Brussels have looked at the volume of grey matter in different parts of the brain in young women.

They were interested to see how the volumes of different parts of the brain correlate with personality, and in particular testing a particular model of personality called the Cloninger personality model.

This model has four temperament dimensions (harm avoidance, novelty seeking, reward dependence and persistence) and three character dimensions (self-directedness, cooperativeness and self-transcendence).

The "self-transcendence" component is related to the feeling that you are part of a broader universe in some deep way, and includes tendencies towards spiritualism.

They found that women with a high sense of self-transcendence had more grey matter in the right-hand side of the brain in the region of the middle temporal gyrus and the inferior parietal gyrus (the images on the left of the picture).

They had less grey matter in the left-hand side of the brain in the region of the inferior temporal gyrus and the sub gyral (in the parietal lobe). They also had less grey matter in the superior frontal gyrus.

All this is intriguing because other research has shown that damage to the right-hand temporal and parietal lobes can lead to increased spirituality. That may be because these regions are involved in spatial awareness.

Now, that doesn't match precisely with these findings in Belgian women (who have more grey matter in this region. But perhaps there is some similar mechanism at work!

ResearchBlogging.orgVan Schuerbeek P, Baeken C, De Raedt R, De Mey J, & Luypaert R (2010). Individual differences in local gray and white matter volumes reflect differences in temperament and character: A voxel-based morphometry study in healthy young females. Brain research PMID: 21126511

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


  1. So this is the first I've heard of Cloninger and his personality test, but I am immediately suspicious of the validity/applicability of the Self-Transcendence aspect. First red flag was that reading the description, I felt it could apply equally well to Deepak Choprah's mad ramblings as it could to the introduction to Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow. Second red flag was the numerous citations provided to justify it as a "measure of spirituality" on the Wikipedia article (multiple citations are a reliable indicator of a controversial statement... that could be like something regarding the truth of AGW, which is well-supported, but my point being, it indicates controversy and warrants a closer look). Third red flag is that Cloninger sells a DVD series (called Know Yourself) capitalizing on the Self-Transcendence aspect of his model.

    Any of those things by themselves, I'd be willing to dismiss. But altogether, I'm thinking his personality model, or at the very least this aspect of it, it is a bit suspect...

  2. James, I share you scepticism, especially given how many different models of personality there are. However, in defence of this one, there are basically three aspects of character that range on a continuum from individualism, to co-operativeness, to transcendence - in these terms a kind of 'meta-co-operation' that describes a feeling that some people have that they are connected with everything else in some deep way.

    Intuitively, that makes sense to me. I can identify with these. More importantly, they do seem to cluster with brain volumes in this independent study. That suggests that there is some real basis to them.


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