Does Spirituality and Religion Guard Against Depression?

There has long been anecdotal evidence that sustained spiritual or religious practice can help improve people’s mood and general sense of well-being. For the first time, we may be on the cusp of understanding the neurological mechanisms underlying these long reported effects.

A recent study from Columbia University has found that there is a strong correlation between how highly someone values spirituality and religion, and the structure of their brains in regions associated with depression. According to lead researcher Lisa Miller, participants who reported that spirituality and religion were of high personal importance had thicker than average cortices in regions where cortical thinning has been linked to a high risk of depression. Participants who did not report placing a significant importance on spirituality and depression had lower average cortical thicknesses in these regions.

The 103 study participants were divided into two groups – a “high-risk” group with a hereditary predisposition to depression, and a “low-risk” group with no family history of depression. Twice over the course of five years, the researchers evaluated the level of importance that participants placed on religion and spirituality, including church attendance. During the second evaluation, the researchers used MRI scans to take anatomical measurements of cortical thicknesses.

The researchers found that the self-assessed importance that individuals placed on religion or spirituality was associated with thicker cortices, but that the frequency of their church attendance had no significant impact. Another interesting finding was that the effects of “spiritual importance” on cortical thickness were significantly stronger in participants in the “high-risk” group than they were in the “low-risk” group. This effect was most pronounced on the mesial wall of the left hemisphere, which is the same region where a significantly thinner cortex has been associated with a hereditary predisposition to depression. This is a promising finding that suggests that spirituality and religion could potential play a role in combating depression, especially amongst those genetically at risk.

Miller and her team are careful to note that these findings are only correlational and do not prove a causal association between the importance individuals place on spirituality and religion, and cortical thickness. This study does add to a growing literature on the relationship between spirituality, meditation, and cortical thickness. A 2005 study suggests that a daily meditation practice can increase cortical thickness, which is in line with Miller’s findings regarding depression.

Overall, the intersection of spirituality, religion, and neuroscience remains an exciting area of research that is sure to bring new insights into potential therapeutic applications.


Miller L, Bansal R, Wickramaratne P, Hao X, Tenke CE, Weissman MM, & Peterson BS (2014). Neuroanatomical correlates of religiosity and spirituality: a study in adults at high and low familial risk for depression. JAMA psychiatry, 71 (2), 128-35 PMID: 24369341

Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, & Fischl B (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16 (17), 1893-7 PMID: 16272874

Image via Sogno Lucido / Shutterstock.

  • I can understand the temptation to link this to religion and spirituality, given the vast number of religious and spiritual people there are. But meditation need not be religious or spiritual. The link, causal or merely correlational, may be between cortical thickness and various forms of contemplation. And the link to depression may be a different by-product of cortical thickness, so that there is only a coincidental inverse link between religion and depression.

    Incidentally, death cures the common cold, but that’s no recommendation for that cure.

    • Being

      A demonstrative glimps of the power of belief

  • Yes, spirituality and religion can deal with depression, but not all of it. The point we need to understand is the motivating force of religions/spirituality. The impulsion to proselytize, the general up beat verve of the new converts, and the general dopamine boost behind much of our emotional system functioning.

    A joke can uplift spirits, for one good reason. When we “get” the joke, the cortex releases a dopamine boost. This re-enforces both the hearer and the teller. The joke gets told again. Jokes have a life of their own, which is the dopamine boost, which can be achieved again and again.
    In the same way, religions can provide this dopamine boost.
    So do good leaders, as we call them charismatic. So do good preachers because they both entertain and lift the spirits of their flock. So to great generals, such as Napoleon, who stated “Morale is as 3!”, because he knew that when the troops were in good spirits, they’d fight a lot better. Those who were depressed, doubtful and so on, were not.
    It’s no surprise that religious inspiration works.

    The “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s 9th, including the Scherzo is a clear example of inspired music. Schiller’s Ode to Joy”. The enlightenment of the Buddha under the Bo tree, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Any kind of religious, political, or other boost which creates this dopamine surge can boost mood.
    We see this all the time. Dopamine is an effective anti-depressant. Anything which raises the catecholamines, such as the MOA inhibitors, raise mood. It’s hard to be depressed when you’re up. Bipolar disorders feel this all the time. They LIKE the mania. So do crack heads and crank addicts, as this is what it is, massive release of stimulating neurochemicals by those drugs. Schizophrenics get the same kind of boost. Religious cults such as Jones-town and David Korreche. Islamists can inspire the jihad with it. Christians would DIE for their fiath because of the power in faith. Religions are self-reinforcing due to the dopamine boost. That’s why their adherents keep on going back. It’s all dopamine boost. And good managers know how to motivate their employees, too.
    It’s all the same. The dopamine boost of religion helps treat depression. It’s just applied neurochemistry. Meditation can do the same. I can lift my spirits simply because I’ve trained my cortex to be up. I put myself in that space, I give myself a dopamine boost, and if not careful, can even get a bit manicky.
    It’s dopamine.
    Google “The Emotional Continuum” for the theory and practice.
    Herb Wiggins, MD. Diplomat, Am. Bd. Psychiatry/Neuro

  • Marry Smith

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Jesse Bisignano, MA

Jesse Bisignano, MA, is a freelance writer. He studied political science at Vassar College and International Development at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies at the University of Geneva.

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