When you hear “spiritual health”, what do you think of? Religion? Nature? Meditation?
It turns out that all of the above encompass spiritual health. There are five main components that make up spiritual health: meaning, value, transcendence, connection and becoming.1 And interestingly, all of these can manifest into unique spiritual experiences for different people. Essentially, spiritual health is all about finding, and experiencing, meaningful connections that enhance your wellbeing.
The neuroscience of spirituality
Over the past few decades, scientific interest in investigating the “neuroscience of spirituality” has taken off. This field of study uses neuroscientific methods to try and explain neural mechanisms involved in spiritual practices and experiences. While this is a challenging field of study, results show interesting links between the brain and spiritual experiences and practices.
What happens in our brains when we practice spirituality?
When you practice spiritual health, there are specific patterns of brain activity that occur. It’s plausible to think that, because spiritual experiences are unique to every person, our brains would respond differently based on the specific event or practice that we engage in. However, a group of scientists from Yale recently completed a study that found a common pattern of neurological activity across various types of spiritual practices or traditions.2 This means that when you engage in spiritual practice, your brain will respond in a pattern consistent to that of your colleague, neighbour, or partner — regardless of if you choose to pray, meditate, or go for a walk.
For me, watching the sunset at the beach is a spiritual experience. Based on the results of this study, when I am sitting in the sand with my friends, watching the sun dip behind the mountains, there are specific areas of my brain that actually decrease in activity. This decrease in activity is thought to be connected to the altered perceptions in the awareness of time and space that one often feels during a spiritual experience.
Can spiritual practice shape the brain?
Not only do our brains respond to spiritual practice in specific ways, but a number of studies have suggested that practicing spirituality actually has the potential to help shape the structure of the brain itself.3, 4 Most of this research has been centred around the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain structure.
Researchers have hypothesized that because meditation helps to balance attention, arousal and other emotional responses, it may play a contributing role in increasing the concentration of neurons (the brains nerve cells) in certain areas of the brain involved in perspective taking, emotional regulation, and concentration 4.
Mental health and spiritual health
Practicing spirituality is also linked to better mental health. On the whole, individuals who engage in spiritual practices or experiences tend to have better mental health exemplified by decreased feelings of anxiety, depression and a decrease in substance abuse.5
Part of the reasoning for this may be that spiritual involvement enhances social support, lays out guidelines for how to relate to others, provides suggestions for healthy living, and provides meaning to individuals.5
Practicing spiritual health
Practicing spiritual health shouldn’t be a chore. Because spirituality is personal and different for everyone, it is all about finding things that are meaningful to you and make you feel connected to things like yourself, others, or nature. Here are some ways you can enhance your spiritual health:
- Practice mindfulness by registering for UBC’s 30-day Online Mindfulness Challenge
- Go for a walk in one of the beautiful walking paths, gardens, forests, or beaches around UBC
- Take a cafe break or a moment to connect with your colleagues
- Listen to your favourite music album
- Cook or bake some of your favourite food
Photo credit: Tirthankar Gupta (Flickr)
Halina Deptuck is a recent graduate from the UBC Behavioural Neuroscience program and is interested in exploring the connections between the brain, mental health, and human behaviour.
- Ghaderi, A., Tabatabaei, S. M., Nedjat, S., Javadi, M., & Larijani, B. (2018). Explanatory definition of the concept of spiritual health: a qualitative study in Iran. Journal of medical ethics and history of medicine, 11.
- Miller, L., Balodis, I. M., McClintock, C. H., Xu, J., Lacadie, C. M., Sinha, R., & Potenza, M. N. (2019). Neural correlates of personalized spiritual experiences. Cerebral Cortex, 29(6), 2331-2338.
- Ott, U., Hölzel, B. K., & Vaitl, D. (2011). Brain structure and meditation: how spiritual practice shapes the brain. In Neuroscience, consciousness and spirituality(pp. 119-128). Springer, Dordrecht.
- Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
- Koenig, H. G. (2010). Spirituality and mental health. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 7(2), 116-122.