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Transcendence linked to brain

16th February 2010

People whose brains sustain damage from cancer are more likely to feel spiritually transcendent than people who do not, according to new Italian research.

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The change seems to have to do with diminished activity of the posterior parietal cortex, which is involved in people's sense of themselves.

The region of the brain in question has also been linked to prayerful and meditative states.

The researchers quizzed 88 people, all of whom had one of two types of brain cancer.

Forty-eight of the subjects were being treated for glioma, a brain cancer that affects the cells surrounding neurons.

Meningioma was the other type of brain cancer found among the subjects. It affects the membrane that wraps around the brain.

Doctors had already removed neurons from the brains of the 48 glioma sufferers, hoping to stem the spread of their tumours.

In order to treat meningioma, however, the doctors removed only the tumour cells from the meninges of their patients, and did not alter the structure of the patients' brain cells themselves.

The research team accompanied the treatment the patients were already receiving with personality tests that attempted to gauge a personality trait dubbed self-transcendence.

People who are self-transcendent may feel as if there is no separation between them and the people around them.

They may tend to lose themselves in the moment and forget about the passage of time.

Of all the study subjects, those whose brain cancer was in the posterior parietal cortex scored higher on the researchers' self-transcendence questionnaire.

People who had a meningioma, or who had a glioma in the front of their brains, did not change their scores when they were given the self-transcendence quiz a second time.

Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, said that he and his colleagues believed there was some connection between the loss of neurons in the posterior parietal cortex and the patients' personality change toward self-transcendence.

He said that he believed that the patients' response was different from the kind of personality change that a seriously ill patient may experience, and that he believed that the reason had to do with reduced activity in the posterior parietal cortex.

Uffe Schjødt, a cognitive neuroscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, said that not all researchers working in the neuroscience of religion accepted the scale of self-transcendence used for the study.

He said that, however, the finding was similar to the results of other studies done on monks and nuns.

Urgesi said that patients who had lost tissue elsewhere in the parietal cortex tended to react bitterly to their illness.

He said that people whose brains naturally have low levels of activity in the posterior parietal cortex may be predisposed to certain expressions of spirituality.

He said that other studies had found electrically stimulating the posterior parietal cortex caused out-of-body experiences.

 

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