Jesse Bisignano, MA – Brain Blogger Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Does Spirituality and Religion Guard Against Depression? Fri, 11 Apr 2014 11:30:57 +0000 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.

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Beauty Is in the Brain of the Beholder Fri, 07 Feb 2014 12:00:06 +0000 There are few things more personal than one’s aesthetic taste. When you really connect to a piece of art or music, it touches something deep inside. It moves you in a way that often escapes words. But what’s going on in your brain when you are moved like this?

This question is explored in the recently-published paper, Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. The study, undertaken by researchers from NYU and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, placed 16 participants in fMRI scanners and randomly showed them 109 unknown colored artworks. Study participants were instructed to rate the works, on a scale of 1 to 4, according to how much each piece “moved” them personally. 

While there was no consensus amongst the participants on which pieces of art were most “moving,” the study revealed that when a participant gave a piece of art the highest rating of 4, there was a strong correlation to the activation of that participant’s Default Mode Network (DMN). By contrast, when a participant gave a lower rating between 1 and 3, this corresponded to a suppression of that participant’s DMN. Because each participant responded favorably and negatively to different pieces of art, the researchers were able to identify the connection between each individual’s aesthetic experience and DMN activation or suppression.

The connection between aesthetic experience and the DMN is significant because the DMN is closely linked to one’s sense of self.

Recent research has found that the DMN is suppressed when observers are engaged in demanding tasks that require them to focus on external stimuli, but becomes more active during passive viewing or periods of rest. More importantly for this study, the DMN can also become activated by external stimuli that cause inwardly focused attention, or cause people to draw on self-referential information. According to the authors, the DMN is “emerging as a highly interconnected network of brain regions that support self-referential mental processing.”

The correlation between highly rated artwork and DMN activation suggests that certain pieces of art “resonate” with an individual’s sense of self, and that this resonance can be identified through a well-defined physiological response. The authors believe that neural representations of the highly rated art obtained access to the neural substrates and processes concerned with the self. It is possible that these highly resonant representations could interact with, and affect, these neural processes. This raises the possibility that highly resonant external stimuli could influence evolving representations of the self, and that these resonant experiences could be more prevalent in everyday life than previously recognized in the lab setting.


Vessel EA, Starr GG and Rubin N (2013). Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Front. Neurosci. 7:258. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00258

Image via AZP Worldwide / Shutterstock.

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