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Not All Spirituality Is Woo
The science of spirituality and why it matters
Last week a woman reached out to tell me she’s a fan of a project I’m working on that helps parents nurture their kids’ authentic spirituality at home. However, she said that her spouse wasn’t so supportive, that he called it “spiritual woo… a lot of good feelings with no substance.”
I’m sympathetic to such doubts about spirituality. A lot of what counts as spirituality is fluff — harmful mantras (“positive vibes only!”) and unfounded belief statements (“Mercury is in retrograde, so I feel sad”).
What’s worse, as I wrote in “Spiritual But Not Conspiritual,” spiritual circles are overrun by fakes and charlatans. John of God, Marshall Applewhite, Carl Lentz, Keith Rainier, Dennis Merzel, Joshu Sasaki, Chögyam Trungpa, Osho, Bentinho Massaro, Joya — the list of people who’ve abused their power in such circles seems so ample that you have to sometimes wonder if anyone in this space is actually enlightened.
And yet the more I dive into the research around spirituality, the more I believe that there is substance here. The emerging science points to something profound and urgently needed.
An Early Study of Spirituality
At the turn of the 20th century, Harvard psychologist William James collected and analyzed hundreds of spiritual experiences and came to the conclusion that “we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.” The specifics of the experiences he collected differed widely, but the fruits were almost always the same: Peace, gratitude, awe, love, connection, and joy. Because of this, James viewed spirituality as essential to well-being.
But because human beings can’t create spiritual experiences on demand, we can’t easily study spirituality in a lab. This is one reason why the methodological study of spirituality dried up after William James published The Varieties of Religious Experience. We didn’t have the tools to measure it.
Thankfully, modern brain imaging technology has started to change all of this.
What Brain Scans Say About Spirituality
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines and other technologies allow researchers to see what’s happening inside the brain. In light of this, a range of researchers — including Dr. Lisa Miller of Columbia University, Dr. Michael Ferguson of Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Andrew Newberg of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital — have started applying this technology to the field of spirituality.
The science is emerging, but it’s consistently showing at least two things.
First, it shows that spiritual experiences correlate with positive changes in the brain. For instance, when researchers invite participants into an imaging machine and then have them enter into a state of spirituality — whether through meditating, saying prayers from their faith tradition, or reading the words of a religious leader — they see that certain areas of the brain associated with well-being light up.
For instance, Lisa Miller and her team invited participants to recount three experiences in detail — a stressful event, a relaxing event, a spiritual event — as they were scanned by an fMRI machine. Participants then returned two weeks later to listen to themselves recount these experiences as they were scanned again, solidifying the findings. As participants recounted spiritual experiences, they tended to show increased activity in the part of the brain that is “implicated in processing positive and rewarding emotions such as love and bliss, distinct from the positive emotions of a relaxing experience.” Participants also showed decreased activity in the part of the brain that distinguishes between us and others, indicating an increased sense of unity. Taken together, these findings suggest that spiritual experiences differ from stressful and even relaxing events in ways that bring the peace that William James spoke of more than 100 years ago.
Second, the emerging science shows that people who regularly practice spirituality tend to exhibit differences in the brain from those who don’t. Again, Lisa Miller and her team at Columbia looked at brain scans of people who say that spirituality and religion are highly important to them and found that they have healthier neural structures compared to those who say the opposite. Michael Ferguson and his team at Harvard have found similar results, indicating that certain people have traits — whether inborn or developed — that lend themselves to experiencing spirituality and the fruits that come with it.
Why Spirituality Matters
Why does any of this matter?
Put simply, the emerging neuroscience shows that spirituality makes us healthier in every sense of the word.
The neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg writes that “spiritual practices, even when stripped of religious beliefs, enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health.”
Dr. Lisa Miller writes that “children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better equipped to deal with life’s ordinary (and even extraordinary) traumas than those who are not.”
And Dr. Michael Ferguson echoes all of this, saying that the emerging research points to the possibility of being able to suggest specific spiritual practices to help people recover from specific mental health problems. In an episode of the Latter-day Faith podcast, he says that he hopes that neuroscience will one day allow clinicians “to look at a patient’s brain circuit maps that are associated with their clinical symptom and then to look at this library of brain circuit maps associated with spiritual practices, and, in an evidenced-based fashion, recommend that they try a particular spiritual practice in order to stimulate the brain circuit that ought to be stimulated in order to alleviate their symptom.” This level of precision opens up the possibility of effective natural mental health treatment. (Ferguson calls it neurospirituality.)
And these benefits aren’t just helpful in an “awww, isn’t that nice…” sort of way.
They’re essential to our survival.
A Cure For Persistent Sadness and Despair
Tragically, the percentage of American teens who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” has ballooned from 26 percent to 44 percent over the past 12 years, according to a new CDC study.
There are a lot of factors behind the sadness, including maladaptive social media use and economic inequality. But one overlooked aspect here also has to do with the declining interest in religion, which is where many people have traditionally gone for spiritual support and practice.
Young people are leaving religion en masse and not coming back. This exodus is understandable in an era when the messages that young people hear at church conflict with their ethics and when it’s easier than ever to hop online and discover uncomfortable facts about religious truth claims. But this exodus away from religion comes with a cost. Without a community that explores life’s deepest questions together, life can start to feel meaningless. The draw toward consumerism (outside and inside of religion) is strong — and ultimately unfulfilling.
It’s little surprise, then, that American teens feel persistently sad. They too often don’t have the community and guidance they need to have a robust spiritual life. Religions are failing young people by not expanding their circle of love beyond their in-group and by ignoring difficult and authentic questions about religion. And secular society is failing them by downplaying the importance of spirituality, writing all of it off as “spiritual woo.”
The truth is that our kids and teens need spirituality, whether inside or outside of religion. They need the experience of connecting beyond themselves to something bigger, an experience that brings peace, purpose, and connection — all of which serves as an antidote to despair, hopelessness, and isolation.
They don’t need dogma, which is small-minded and proud, or conspirituality, which is “woo” and all about the ego.
They need authentic spirituality.