A Neural Circuit for Spirituality and Religiosity Derived From Patients With Brain Lesions

Michael A Ferguson*, Frederic L W V J Schaper, Alexander Cohen, Shan Siddiqi, Sarah M Merrill, Jared A Nielsen, Jordan Grafman, Cosimo Urgesi, Franco Fabbro, Michael D Fox

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND: Over 80% of the global population consider themselves religious, with even more identifying as spiritual, but the neural substrates of spirituality and religiosity remain unresolved.

METHODS: In two independent brain lesion datasets (N1 = 88; N2 = 105), we applied lesion network mapping to test whether lesion locations associated with spiritual and religious belief map to a specific human brain circuit.

RESULTS: We found that brain lesions associated with self-reported spirituality map to a brain circuit centered on the periaqueductal gray. Intersection of lesion locations with this same circuit aligned with self-reported religiosity in an independent dataset and previous reports of lesions associated with hyper-religiosity. Lesion locations causing delusions and alien limb syndrome also intersected this circuit.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that spirituality and religiosity map to a common brain circuit centered on the periaqueductal gray, a brainstem region previously implicated in fear conditioning, pain modulation, and altruistic behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)380-388
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2022


  • Brain
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases
  • Pain
  • Religion
  • Spirituality
  • LOVE


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