The current issue of Nature includes a report on a new study in Italy about the connections between certain brain regions and religious experience:

Removing part of the brain can induce inner peace, according to researchers from Italy. Their study provides the strongest evidence to date that spiritual thinking arises in, or is limited by, specific brain areas.

To investigate the neural basis of spirituality, Cosimo Urgesi, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Udine, and his colleagues turned to people with brain tumours to assess the feeling before and after surgery. Three to seven days after the removal of tumours from the posterior part of the brain, in the parietal cortex, patients reported feeling a greater sense of self-transcendence. This was not the case for patients with tumours removed from the frontal regions of the brain.

“Self-transcendence used to be considered just by philosophers and crank new age people,” says co-author Salvatore Aglioti, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Sapienza University of Rome. “This is the first really close-up study on spirituality. We’re dealing with a complex phenomenon that’s close to the essence of being human.”

That claim to novelty, of course, is manifestly false. As discussed in our series “A cognitive revolution?” there have been numerous neurological studies of spiritual experience, and again and again they draw similarly extravagant claims from their findings. Until those conducting such research start talking to each other and acquire a bit of epistemic modesty, it is doubtful that they will be reliable as guides to “the essence of being human.”

Continue reading at Nature.