Spirituality – whether you define it in a religious framework, as a connection to a higher power or simply gut instinct – is not something that we are taught to tap into in the modern, Western world. The rational part of the self that thinks and embraces logic, structure and rules cannot explain where this gut instinct comes from or why it resonates and our ability to rationalise in this way is valued. For many, hard facts trump inner knowing every time.
Dr Lisa Miller, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University in the USA, argues that we need both to find peace and purpose in life. In her new book, The Awakened Brain, she goes further, arguing that spirituality is built into our neural circuitry. Lisa believes that by learning to engage with spirituality fully, we can better confront mental ill health.
Lisa has spent decades researching the effects of spirituality on the brain and how it affects mental wellbeing. She has long believed that science and spirituality are not at odds. Spirituality here is not limited to religious frameworks: she defines it as both a transcendent relationship with something bigger than oneself (whether that is in a specific faith tradition or a humanist view of the oneness of life) and an understanding that this connection runs through each of us. The link between physiology and spirituality was first established in a 1997 twin study by Dr Kenneth Kendler which found that spiritual awareness is innate in individuals, with 30% of spirituality shown to be heritable, not learned. Using this idea as a basis, Lisa wanted to explore how this innate capacity for spirituality manifested in people at varying risk of depression.
Without diving too deep into the science, in 2012 Lisa worked with a team to produce a series of functional MRI scans to identify whether spirituality has a concrete, physiological function in our brains. Looking at the scans of people at low and high risk of depression, they asked their subjects: “How personally important is religion or spirituality to you?” The team found significant disparities between people who answered differently.
Spirituality can be shown to be protective in people who have an otherwise high risk of depression.
Subjects with a higher risk of depression who said that spirituality had a sustained, high importance in their life had a thickening of the prefrontal cortex. By comparison, those who said spirituality had a medium, mild or low importance showed cortical thinning. The high spiritual brain was inescapably healthier and better functioning. When the research was peer reviewed and published in 2014, Lisa and her team expanded on this, saying that spirituality can be shown to be protective in people who have an otherwise high risk of depression.
This finding forms the backbone of The Awakened Brain. We all have a capacity for spirituality built into us and it seems that the more we engage in it, the better our brains are reinforced against mental suffering.
Over Zoom, Lisa expands on what she sees as the four main components of the awakened brain (a brain that is directly engaged in spiritual awareness). Many of us will be familiar with the first component: mindfulness. “We quiet the racket, we stop the rumination, and in that sense we get to the threshold.” In doing so we “prep our minds for spiritual awareness”, as she writes in the book. By disengaging from the constant thrum of thoughts and rumination, we can begin to be aware of, and engage in, other forms of knowing.
Lisa identifies the other components that emerge from this place of mindfulness as the bonding network (“Just as the bonding network was up online when we were children in our parents’ arms, the bonding network again comes up online, and we know that there’s a spirit, a nature, a consciousness in life that is holding and buoyant”); the parietal network (“The parietal, which puts in and out hard boundaries, allows us to see that we are magnificently diverse, we’re all different everything and still there’s a deep common seat of human experience”); and shifting from using our dorsal attention network (the goal-directed, top-down processing part of the brain) to the ventral attention network (the network involved in involuntary actions and bottom-up processing). Lisa gives the example of being focused on one goal, like getting through a door. “Using the dorsal network, [you think] I’ve got to get out the red door, the whole team has got to go out the red door, but the red door is blocked.” Then you realise that the yellow door is wide open. You may not have thought of it before but it’s actually a better plan. “From top-down to bottom-up attention, we gain a sense of being guided. There’s more information and the answer pops.”
All four of these components, she argues, bring a new sense of perception – one that can be seen to strengthen the brain. In other words, when you find calm from the storm of your thoughts, disengage from your ego and start listening to both your head and your heart, your gut and your brain, it is a form of spirituality. Lisa calls this the awakened brain.
Lisa’s research is convincing but when distilled to its core – spirituality will help your mental health – it can make many people, myself included, balk. It sounds like someone simultaneously trying to convert you and telling you to meditate away your depression. To say that being more spiritual could offer psychic relief feels like a dismissal of pain.
There is certainly precedent for platitudes being dismissive. On Instagram in particular, there’s long been a proliferation of white women wellness influencers who ‘discovered’ yoga and meditation and made them part of their personal brand. Spirituality is presented in a way that doesn’t directly engage with many people’s lived experiences or acknowledge how factors like class, race, gender, ability and sexuality all play a role in how we experience our mental health. When the focus is on shifting perspective without allowing for the socioeconomic factors that also shape mental wellbeing, it implies that you are the sole reason for your distress. Put bluntly, it feels patronising to tell someone in deep pain to ‘trust your gut’.
Alongside an inherent trust in rationality, the fact that spirituality is seen as something that doesn’t engage with lived experience forms the bedrock of many people’s scepticism. Lisa sees that scepticism as understandable and even inevitable as we are socialised out of what she calls a child’s ‘implicit spiritual cognition’. But her argument is that an awakened brain is not one that attempts to deny pain or trauma. For Lisa, awakened awareness means knowing that “in our darkest hours we are not alone and we are on a path, and that this is the tunnel that we walk through. We didn’t have a choice about the journey, the only choice you get is you can choose to deny that we’re on a process and lodge yourself in one place in the tunnel, or you choose to keep walking in the tunnel. Walking means that in the darkest hour I am in a deep relationship with life and that life continues to reveal awareness and clarity and insight, even when it still hurts.”
We didn’t have a choice about the journey, the only choice you get is you can choose to deny that we’re on a process and lodge yourself in one place in the tunnel, or you choose to keep walking in the tunnel.
Dr Lisa Miller
How convincing that is or how capable you feel of seeing life that way is entirely personal. To begin to trust your inner knowing and look for signs that you are being guided could be like adding fuel to the fire for people with anxiety disorders or OCD. The depression and isolation that many of us feel as a direct result of life itself can make it seem ridiculous to believe that we are ‘not alone’. After all, we have spent the past 18 months reckoning with a pandemic that has had an almost inconceivable impact on people’s mental health, where we have been explicitly isolated from one another.
And yet there is a core of these ideas that can be held onto, no matter your perspective. We should engage with our gut feeling and believe it to be part of our knowledge; relentless overthinking can take us away from lived experience; we are sharing this planet and can turn away from an individualised focus to one centred on cherishing relationships with each other.
The things that shape our mental wellbeing are vast and varied and can make us feel incredibly alone. The solution to the mental health crisis cannot, then, be monolithic. Medication can play a role for some and different forms of therapy work wonders for many. On a larger scale there needs to be a radical overhaul of the way our world is currently structured to prioritise capital over people and individuals over community. The values that shape the core of what Lisa calls spirituality have their role, too. There is room for scepticism but there shouldn’t be outright ridicule. The more we engage in these values in our own way, perhaps the stronger our brains will become, too.
This story has been edited for clarity
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