The Neurobiology of Spirituality

In General by Dr. Keith Witt


How relevant is spirituality to normal development? According to a number of epidemiological findings and much neurobiological research, spirituality is of central importance to healthy development. As detailed in Dr. Lisa Miller’s book, The Awakened Brain, we are hard-wired to develop spiritual awareness, and to share it with others. Dr. Miller has identified four brain areas which are activated simultaneously when people are having a moment of felt spiritual connectedness. She has collected practices which elicit this response, and, amazingly, she has worked with the U.S. Army to teach her material to two million soldiers in their “Spiritual Readiness Initiative.” Her work indicates that the biological drive to feel spiritually connected is twice as strong in late adolescence--just the time that young adults are creating adult identities, relationships, and life purpose--and is much more robust when shared with others. This strongly suggests a neurobiological critical period for spiritual awakening and development (which I’ve suspected for decades).

These findings are relevant to development and trauma in that some forms of trauma—particularly childhood developmental trauma—literally shut down people’s brains in several of the areas Dr. Miller and her colleagues have studied. Traumatized brains often need healing via neurofeedback or other treatments to be functional enough to even reach for self-reflection and spiritual connectedness without becoming overwhelmed. That being said, when people can regularly activate their Awakened Brain circuits, all other psychological and relational work is enhanced.

Cumulatively, Lisa Miller’s data strongly indicates that cultivating an awakened brain practice--and especially directing the positive energy into caring for others--protects people from depression, anxiety, and suicidality, and opens us up to intuitive flashes from our Wise Self.

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