Purpose//

What Does Neuroscience Say About Spirituality?

3 Core Values To Spiritual Practices For A Rapidly Changing and Divided World

“It’s not the strength of the body, but the strength of the spirit.” – J.R.R. Tolkien (Author of Lord of the Rings

How often do you check your reflection in a mirror each day? A British survey in Yorkshire reported that men and women looked at their reflections about 23 times and 16 times, respectively. While it’s easy to check out our physical appearances, it’s much harder to describe our spiritual well-being. 

In recent years, advances in brain imaging technologies have allowed neuroscientists to study spiritual experiences. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans have shown that powerful spiritual feelings are associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens, a critical brain region for processing reward (similar to the experience of love, sex, gambling, drugs and music). During peak spiritual experiences, the study participants described feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth. Research has also shown that prayer or meditation tends to activate the brain’s frontal lobes (which are responsible for attention, behavior modulation, and verbal expression).  

Spirituality often holds different meanings, depending on your cultural, philosophical, and religious beliefs. And it doesn’t need to be tied to an organized religion or an established religious institution. There seem to be three values that are core to most forms of spirituality.

1. Common Human Experience: Community, Compassion, and Empathy

Spirituality often focuses on your inner being. It helps to foster a sense of solidarity and bonding with others in the basic human experience. Despite differences in outer appearance or socioeconomic status, if we stop and look within ourselves, we are reminded of our shared humanity — life and death, health and sickness, the yearning for love and the fear of loneliness.

“Even the rich are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted, for having someone to call their own.” – Mother Teresa

We share in the joy of holding babies, just as we share in the grief of losing loved ones. The cycle of life is a leveling plane for all humanity. As a result, spirituality often cultivates compassion and empathy as we observe our common experiences and learn to walk in the shoes of others. We learn to comfort those who grieve and celebrate with those who find victories. 

2. Purpose, Meaning, and Service

Even if you don’t believe in the existence of God, most likely you can’t deny the sense that there is a greater purpose to your life than the physical world that you see. Our brains are developed as an electrochemical, neuronal network with the ability to observe, encode, and identify perceived patterns. We naturally look for patterns in our lives and then seek out meanings in them. Spirituality often is an avenue for many to find meaning and purpose. It also calls us to see the larger world than our immediate circumstances. It gives us different lens — like switching from looking through a magnifying glass to using a pair of binoculars. We develop longer range vision and broader perspectives. As a result, we grow in awareness of those who are suffering or less fortunate than us, and become more open to service and charity.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

3. Inner Peace and Mindfulness

Spirituality also involves finding an inner peace and growing in mindfulness through practices such as prayer, meditation, silence retreats, and journaling. It’s difficult to find stillness in your soul if you are consumed by hectic activities and noise. Have you tried carving out time in your day to find quietness? A long walk in the park? Try switching off all your devices and sit still for a few minutes with your eyes closed. Meditation apps or calming music may also help to find focus and slow down racing thoughts.

As we live in an increasingly fast-moving and divided world, it’s even more critical for us to cultivate and pay attention to our spiritual well-being. 

In the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” 

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