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How doing good does you good

20 August 2021

Lisa Miller’s research claims to demonstrate a neurological basis for innate spiritual perception and its benefits


I AM a scientist, not a theologian. Faith traditions have a lot to say about ontological questions — the nature of reality, why we’re here, the existence and guidance of God or a higher power. As a scientist, I don’t address these issues. I look at how humans are built and how we develop over the life span. I’ve discovered that the awakened brain is both inherent to our physiology and invaluable to our health and functioning.

The awakened brain includes a set of innate perceptual capacities that exist in every person, through which we experience love and connection, unity, and a sense of guidance from and dialogue with life. And, when we engage these perceptual capacities — when we make full use of how we’re built — our brains become structurally healthier and better connected, and we access unsurpassed psychological benefits: less depression, anxiety, and substance abuse; and more positive psychological traits such as grit, resilience, optimism, tenacity, and creativity.

The awakened brain is the neural circuitry that allows us to see the world more fully, and thus enhance our individual, societal, and global well-being. When we awaken, we feel more fulfilled and at home in the world, and we build relationships and make decisions from a wider view.

We move from loneliness and isolation to connection; from competition and division to compassion and altruism; from an entrenched focus on our wounds, problems, and losses to a fascination with the journey of life.

In 2016, I received a generous private grant to research universal dimensions of spirituality, and my team (with elegant translation and data acquisition design by doctoral students Clayton McClintock and Elsa Lau) started by studying 5500 participants in India, China, and the United States.

Among our participants, who represented the most populous world religious traditions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism — as well as the category of non-religious, secular, or spiritual-but-not-religious, we found that people shared five common spiritual phenotypes:


1. Altruism
2. Love of neighbour as self
3. Sense of oneness
4. Practice of sacred transcendence
5. Adherence to moral code


Across humanity we find magnificently vivid and diverse expressions of spiritual life, told in varied languages, stories, and symbols, and experienced in ceremony, ritual, transcendent practice, and other sacred ways of coming together. This rich diversity in spirituality stems from the two-thirds of our spiritual contribution that is passed through the teachings of generations and learned through the environment.

Our study took into account the diverse expressions of spirituality, and gave us a clearer picture of the one-third heritable contribution to our shared spiritual capacity. The five universal phenotypes clarified that while the formation of spirituality is impacted by diverse cultures and traditions, the seat of spiritual perception is innate.


ULTIMATELY, we can share and feel spiritual experiences at a deep level, with the “knowing of the heart”, across the so-called lines of faith traditions, because we are all built with the same foundationally spiritual brain. Our research had already shown that spirituality is deep in our nature, in our brains, inside us. Now, we had a more descriptive way of defining what it means to be spiritual.

Once we had identified the five universal spiritual phenotypes, I wondered if we could get more specific about spirituality in the brain. Could each phenotype be mapped to a particular neurocorrelate? Given the overall structural benefits of the awakened brain, could we determine which of the five spiritual phenotypes were the most protective against cortical thinning and depression?

We collaborated with my colleague Myrna Weissman on her longitudinal data set, looking at more than 70 adults aged 22 to 63, the second- and third-generation offspring of the depressed and non-depressed women in her original cohort.

For each participant, her team had taken MRI scans of both left and right hemispheres of the brain at year 35 of the study, which meant that we could look at how the brain structure was related to personal spirituality and symptoms of depression over time.

Using survey questions mapped to the spiritual phenotypes, we gave each a “spiritual phenotype factor score” for each of the five phenotypes, and examined the association between cortical thickness in spiritual regions of the brain, symptoms and diagnoses of depression, and phenotype factor scores. We made an important discovery.

There was enhanced cortical thickness — in other words, structural protection against depression — in the participants who were both high-risk for depression and had a relatively stronger sense of the first two phenotypes, altruism and love of neighbour as self (with the phenotype of oneness present, but with a variable statistical signal). The same neural protective benefits were not seen in people at low risk for depression or associated with the other spiritual phenotypes.

More specifically, altruism and love of neighbour correlated with cortical thickness across the spiritual network of the brain, including regions of bonding, suggesting a robust protective benefit of relational spirituality, a personal spirituality that emphasises both our commitment to other humans and our awareness of a transcendent or higher power — and how divine and human love are linked.

Our finding touched on the cornerstone of all faith traditions: that sacred, transcendent love ignites in service to one another.

What we saw in the scanner suggested a neuroanatomical foundation to relational spirituality. Here may be the bedrock of human possibility, where the secular humanists and Evangelicals meet in ultimate significance and service to the world.

We saw that the people at high risk for depression who were also high in altruism and love of neighbour had a decreased relative risk for depression. This finding implies that relational spirituality interventions focusing on altruism and love could benefit people at high risk for depression, offering a pathway to resilience.

What’s more, we found that, for people at high risk for depression, altruism and love of neighbour are prospectively protective against depressive symptoms. In other words, people high in altruism and love are less depressed years in the future than those who are less altruistic, with an even bigger effect if they have been depressed in the past.

If you take Prozac to treat depression, and then stop taking the medication, you could potentially be depressed again in a matter of weeks. But our study suggested that daily, lived altruism may be curative.

Why does altruism — lived, actionable service to fellow humans — prevent against the downward spiral of recurrent depression among people with a lifelong tendency to suffer?

Maybe because it draws people out of isolation and into reconnection, benefiting both the helper and the helped. Maybe because it fulfils a sense of purpose, and gives expression to deep calling and contribution. Maybe because it restores us to ourselves — to our own optimum functioning, and also to an accurate perception of the nature of life.

THE awakened brain enables us to see our connection to others and to earth — and it guides us, even requires us, to live in a way that supports that connection. Altruism is essentially an embodied form of our awareness of unity and love.

Our awareness and our way of being become integrated and mutually enforcing, altruism both the conduit and destination of our awakening, a lived expression of who we are to one another.

This is perhaps the biggest revelation of the awakened brain: that it’s in our innate nature to build a better world. That what’s good for everyone is also what’s best for each one of us. When we activate altruism, we engage neural functioning essential to our personal wellness and thriving — and to the wellness and thriving of all. Everyone gains when we open our hearts to others and to all life.

Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics and a member of the prominent American Kennedy family, shares how an awakened heart helped him to transform a sense of fragmentation into a perception of unity, and how the spiritual perception of oneness influences his work and activism now.

The sense of dichotomy and fragmentation began early in his life, when his experience of play, harmony, and togetherness was pierced by “shocking, lifelong, unprocessable grief and loss” following the assassinations of his uncles, John and Robert Kennedy. He didn’t know how to hold the losses alongside the peace.

This sense of fracture continued as he began a career in urban education. Many of the kids he worked with were deeply wounded, pained, and grieving. “I was mesmerised,” he said, “because I felt like we had so much in common. It looked like I was a rich white kid with a college education and money and privilege and all the things that on the surface, of course, I am.

“But, emotionally, I was with those kids strolling the streets at night, not wanting to go to school, not knowing how to make sense of the world or understand why anything at all mattered.” But he didn’t know how to help them — or himself — heal the sense of irrelevance. “I just kept telling them not to listen to their own inner voices,” Shriver says.

“I’d tell them, ‘Do your homework, work harder, try harder, get your grades up. I can help you get a two-car garage and a house in the suburbs. And, dammit, do your homework.’ And they kept telling me, ‘No, that’s a lie. That doesn’t produce the outcome I’m looking for. Not even close.’ And they were right. It was a lie for them. It is for all of us.”

This is an edited extract from The Awakened Brain: The psychology of spirituality and our search for meaning by Lisa Miller, published by Allen Lane at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-0-241-40193-4. Lisa Miller is a professor in the clinical psychology programme at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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