Spiritual Depression | Your Spiritual Brain Heals Depression

Spiritual Depression | Your Spiritual Brain Heals Depression


Research shows having a spiritual brain creates physical changes to the brain.

Thanks to science, research has discovered many ways the human body and mind can heal that doesn’t involve swallowing pills. For example, being in nature, and having spiritual beliefs, have both been found to improve mental and physical health and help treat, what many people label as spiritual depression. And recent studies show that having a spiritual brain causes profound changes to one of our most important organs.

Research from Professor Lisa Miller, who is the director of Clinical Psychology and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teacher College, now shows that religious and spiritual practices alter the physical matter of the brain.

Professor Miller has discovered that those who meditate regularly, or who regularly perform religious or spiritual practices, experience a thickening of their brain cortex.

It’s now believed that this thickening effect, that meditation and spiritual practise has on the brain, could be what guards against depression, particularly in people who are genetically predisposed to depression.

The study, published by JAMA Psychiatry, involved 103 adult participants who were classed as being either high or low risk for depression, based on their family history. Each participant was asked how highly they regard spirituality and religion.

MRI brain scans of the participants showed that those who placed high importance on spirituality or religion had increased cortical thickness. Those who placed little importance on the spiritual or religious matters had decreased cortical thickness. The thicker cortex was found in the exact same regions of the brain that show thinning in people with a high risk of depression.

The results suggest that spirituality or religion may protect people from developing depression by thickening the brain cortex and counteracting the cortical thinning that occurs with those suffering from depression.

"The new study links this extremely large protective benefit of spirituality or religion to previous studies which identified large expanses of cortical thinning in specific regions of the brain in adult offspring of families at high risk for major depression," Miller said. -  https://www.newswise.com/articles/new-study-finds-spirituality-and-religion-may-protect-against-major-depression-by-thickening-brain-cortex

While regularly attending church was not necessary, those who placed strong personal value on spirituality or religion were most protected against developing depression.

This was not the only research showing MRI brain changes in those who had a sense or feeling of being spiritually connected.


People who underwent spiritual experiences showed increased and decreased brain activity in key regions of the brain.

In many Western countries, there is a common trend of decreased interest in religion, and an increased interest in spirituality. While spiritual beliefs vary, the foundation of being spiritual is having a sense, or feeling, of union with something bigger than oneself.

In one study, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Addictions, Dr Mark Potenza, used fMRI brain scans, which is a special type of brain scan that examines neural structures and systems in the brain, to examine how spirituality activated and deactivated certain parts of the brain, which changed how people perceived the world around them.

Participants were asked to recall previous spiritual events they experienced that were unique to each participant. At the same time, the fMRI scans were able to detect their brain activity when recalling these spiritual experiences.

Participants were asked to recall an experience when they felt ‘a strong connection with a higher power or a spiritual presence’. Their experiences were turned into a script, recorded on audio, and then played back to them while they were receiving an fMRI scan. The parts of the brain that were activated and measured during the recall of their spiritual experiences were compared to the measurements taken while participants listened to narrations of their neutral and stressful experiences.

fMRI scans showed that certain parts of the brain were associated with lower levels of activity when participants recalled their spiritual experiences. Those parts of the brain were:

  • The Inferior parietal lobe, which deals with perceptual processing, relating to the concept of self in time and space.
  • The thalamus and striatum, which deals with emotional and sensory processing.

What these findings show us is that spiritual experiences shift our perceptions and can moderate the effects of stress on mental health. The study found less activity in the brain areas responsible for stress and increased activity in the brain areas responsible for connection with others.

This research shows that spiritual experiences activate parts of the brain that give us a sense of union with someone, or something outside of oneself. Having this perception of being in an engaging community is one of the key areas many support groups use to aid recovery from substance abuse, and other behavioural health issues, such as with Alcoholics Anonymous. Spiritual experiences appear to offer us a similar level of support by giving people a feeling of community, connection, and belonging.

One aspect of this study which is important to be aware of is that participants in this study were free to recall their own personal spiritual experiences, without being influenced. This means that people do not need to participate in specific spiritual experiences to receive these same benefits. Any form of spiritual experience that a person feels is relevant for them has been shown to be beneficial.

Dr. Christina Puchalski, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, defines spirituality as “the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred." Importantly, the authors of the study encouraged diverse, personally-motivated definitions of spiritual experience, examples of which included participation in a religious service at a house of worship, connection with nature, mindfulness meditation, and contemplative prayer. -  https://www.addictionpolicy.org/blog/tag/research-you-can-use/how-does-spirituality-change-the-brain

However, that’s not all. It has been shown through separate research that spiritual experiences activate another key region of the brain that’s responsible for reward.


The brain appears to be hard-wired to influence us to want more spiritual experiences.

The Religious Brain Project, launched by a group of University of Utah researchers and published in the journal Social Neuroscience, conducted their own research into understanding how the brain operates in people with deep spiritual or religious beliefs.

Research found that spiritual or religious experiences activate the reward circuits in the brain.

These are the same reward circuits that activate with love, sex, gambling, music and drugs.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," says senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson. "In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia." -  https://unews.utah.edu/this-is-your-brain-on-god/

Based upon fMRI scans of participants who underwent an hour of specific assessment using a variety of means, researchers found that powerful spiritual feelings were associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens, which is a critical region in the brain that’s responsible for processing reward.

Researchers also found that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a complex region of the brain that’s activated by tasks involving judgement, valuation, and moral reasoning. It was also found that spiritual feelings activate brain regions that are associated with focused attention.

Research is showing us what appears to be a strong link between depression and spirituality and that having a spiritual brain can help. This specific study also shows us that our brains are hard-wired to make us feel pleasure when we undergo deep spiritual experiences. These are the same areas of the brain that activate with love and sex, which are very important for the continuation of the human species.

Are our brains trying to show us that spiritual experiences are also very important for the continuation of the human species?

That is a thought worth thinking about.

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