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 valuesspirituality 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.