MU scientist finds selflessness to be key to spirituality

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Brick Johnstone has been studying spirituality in the brain for over 10 years. Photo by Molly Olmstead

Franciscan nuns practicing Christian centering prayer say they experience union with God. Buddhist monks deep in meditation describe seeing the true nature of reality. As they deflect thoughts about their own world, they feel themselves connected to something larger – to God, or to the cosmos. And as they move into this state of spiritual transcendence, a part of their brains drifts to sleep.

Brick Johnstone also chases the experience of transcendence, training himself in a Dharma Buddhist center in Columbia, sitting for a half hour at a time, focusing on his breathing and batting away distracting thoughts. But unlike the monks and nuns, he knows how the transcendence looks in the brain.

Johnstone is not a guru, but a scientist – a neuropsychologist at the University of Missouri. He’s fascinated by this idea of spiritual transcendence as a process in the brain. His research focuses on the right parietal lobe, an area of the brain that has been related to more intense experiences of spirituality. Much of his research has involved looking at people’s experiences when the right parietal lobe is inhibited, often accidentally through injury. Johnstone found that when this brain area is quiet, people experience a stronger sense of spirituality.

“His work has firmed up the conclusion that this area of the brain is extremely important for a sense of selflessness,” says Robert Ornstein, a psychologist who has written or contributed to more than 20 books about consciousness and taught at Stanford University.

But Johnstone will tell you that spirituality is more complicated than just suppressing one part of the brain, and he tries to look at spirituality as a process involving the whole brain, as well as cultural and environmental forces that shape a person’s life.

Johnstone’s work bridges two approaches to studying spirituality – the precise brain imaging of neuroscience and the abstract discussions of theology and religious studies – in an attempt to understand spirituality in the brain and as a human experience.

A “traditional Midwest kid” 

Johnstone didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household. He was born in 1962 to a father who started as a ladder salesman and wound up selling artificial kidneys and a stay-at-home-mom-turned-nurse in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. He describes himself as “a traditional Midwest kid,” raised in a Methodist household that was not particularly devout. He played basketball and football, and he accepted a football scholarship to Duke University in North Carolina, where he enrolled as a pre-med student.

But med school didn’t stick, and instead he graduated with degrees in psychology and art history. He later enrolled in the child clinical psychology program at the University of Georgia. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1988, worked for a couple years at the University of Washington Medical School in Seattle, and was hired by the University of Missouri in 1990.

When he’s not doing research, Johnstone sees patients at the Department of Health Psychology in the School of Health Professions at MU. As a neuropsychologist – someone who studies how the brain affects behavior and mental processes – he spends most his time diagnosing patients with traumatic brain injuries or reduced brain function. Though built like a former defensive back, Johnstone wears sweaters and speaks in a soft, comforting voice to his patients as he takes them through his questions. Later, after they’ve met with the lab technicians, Johnstone studies the patients’ cognitive tests for an understanding of the physical injuries, and he pieces together the clues from the patients and their brains.

He can tell which parts of the brain are damaged from tests of memory and language. He knows which regions are associated with which abilities, and his knowledge of these relationships allowed him to join the search to understand spirituality in the brain just over a decade ago.

Discovering selflessness

Johnstone can’t remember precisely when he became interested in the relationship between religion and health. It might have been during the religious studies classes he took in college, or possibly earlier. But he knows he had been thinking about it for a long time when, in 2004, he learned about a fellowship at what is now known as the Center on Religion and the Professions at MU. He wrote a letter expressing his interest, was selected, and began meeting with experts in other fields to discuss the role of religion in their professions. He explored the role of religion in coping with illnesses, injuries and disabilities, and in 2006 he became the director of the Spirituality and Health Project at the center.

While at the center, Johnstone transitioned to exploring the causes and effects of spirituality in the brain, and he was baffled by what he saw. He and his fellow researchers administered tests that required the study subjects to estimate the measurement of angles to measure spatial skills. Those who did worse on the test, it turned out, ranked higher on a measure of spirituality, determined by a standardized questionnaire. “It made no sense whatsoever,” Johnstone says. “How does decreased spatial perception equate with being more spiritual?”

So Johnstone and his fellow researchers started digging around, and they found previous studies that had shown the right parietal lobe becoming less active in brain scans of nuns and monks in prayer and meditation. “It hit me,” Johnstone says. “What is that part of the brain associated with? One is spatial perception; the other is tactile sensitivity; the third is self-orientation.” He read the monks’ and nuns’ descriptions of those spiritual experiences and realized limiting that sense of self had to be connected to spirituality. “It’s kind of like these lights went off.”

Johnstone was fascinated. Suddenly, he found himself with a whole set of new questions, all related to the the bigger question of the experience of spirituality.

He led follow-up studies that began to explore this concept of spiritual transcendence, which he separates from religion and which he considers a feeling of a connection with a power beyond the self, whatever that might be. His studies stood out from previous research, he says, by focusing on injuries to patients’ right parietal lobes, rather than the changes in healthy brains during spiritual experiences.

“If you hurt that part of the brain, you lose your focus on yourself,” he says. “Then what are you going to do? Well, you focus on things beyond the self. And that’s the basic definition of transcendence.”

Johnstone’s work branched out from there. He continued to examine the mental and physical health effects of spirituality and religion, linking spirituality to better physical health and the social support of a church congregation to better mental health. For Johnstone, studies like these drove home the difference between religion and spirituality. Religion can determine social practices and networks, much like any institution, he says. Spirituality, which can be experienced by anyone, regardless of any religious beliefs, is much more personal.

He also continued to explore more and more the idea of “selflessness” as the foundation of spiritual transcendence, and his results held up in studies of people of different religious and cultural backgrounds. “There’s a universal neuropsychological foundation to transcendence, and it’s just interpreted differently based on culture,” he says.

Johnstone decided he wanted to expand his own understanding of spirituality beyond his field, and in 2013 he spent nine months at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, followed two years later by a summer at Oxford University in England. During both experiences he immersed himself in discussions with theologians and other scientists, opening his eyes to new ways the fields could intersect.

Branching out

Johnstone began branching out his research even more. He turned his focus to empathy and forgiveness, two experiences connected often in religious doctrines but rarely in scientific research.

Johnstone and a team of researchers ran a study that tested the levels of empathy of people with healthy and damaged right parietal lobes. To his surprise, he found that those with more active right parietal lobes – meaning they had a more acute sense of self – tested for higher levels of empathy. To Johnstone and his team, this meant strengthening one’s sense of self helps to understand someone else’s existence.

Conversely, damaged parietal lobes made it easier for participants in a different study to forgive others. To Johnstone, this meant reducing one’s sense of self made it easier to let go of past wrongs.

Johnstone’s focus on the sense of self and the right parietal lobe makes him stand out in the field beyond just the search to understand spirituality, according to Ornstein, the Stanford researcher.  “I think it’s one of the few pieces of research that really ties down what is going on inside the brain to various virtues,” he says.

Johnstone continues to follow his earlier research threads. In 2015, he published studies that associated poor physical health with negative spiritual beliefs, and he published another that extended his previous findings about selflessness, spiritual transcendence and the right parietal lobe to Christian, Hindu and Muslim traditions in India.

Despite some scientists’ criticism of him for courting the abstract, he says this research is what keeps him excited about every day of work. “I feel lucky,” he says. “It keeps on taking me places I didn’t expect to go.”

Reaching outside the sciences

Johnstone often relies on people from other departments, such as Dan Cohen, a professor in the department of religious studies at MU, to help him understand his findings. Cohen, who has worked with Johnstone for the past 10 years, says Johnstone has always encouraged other points of view and sought out opinions from different fields.  “The nature of the research is incredibly interdisciplinary,” he says. “We’ve connected with people from all over the university.”

Johnstone often emphasizes the importance of the humanities, even in his conversations with other neuropsychologists, according to Jonathan Wellman, a postdoctoral fellow who studies under Johnstone and others in the clinic. “The interpretation of why something happens isn’t something science can always explain,” Wellman explains. “Why is a grander question.”

Johnstone acknowledges that the hard sciences often fail to grasp the complexity of things like spirituality. He cites studies of empathy, which, he says, are often measured by tests with computer games. “That’s not empathy,” Johnstone says simply. He says he’s trying to improve measures of concepts like spirituality in his collaborations with theologians and people in the humanities, in hopes scientists will benefit from broader and clearer understandings of these concepts in the future.

Experiencing transcendence

Johnstone does not believe spirituality is a simple matter, but he does believe people can learn to reduce their sense of self, which, in turn, can open them up to spiritual experiences and forgiveness. And while a greater sense of self was found to be associated with higher rates of empathy, he argues people can train themselves to experience both.  After all, he believes all the major world religions have always encouraged both selflessness and empathy.

“We’re seeing selflessness is this universal foundation for all these wonderful experiences people can have,” he says.

To Johnstone, these experiences of spiritual transcendence and selflessness are not just matters for nuns and monks. He says anyone can learn to suppress the sense of self by something as simple as getting lost in a forest, or in music, or even in a good book. Spirituality, he says, can be a daily experience.

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