A recent study looks at the effect of brain surgery to remove tumors on feelings of self-transcendence. The authors found, after looking at 88 patients, that those who had tumors removed from the inferior parietal lobe or the right angular gyrus, but not the frontal lobes, reported increases in thoughts and feelings that might be interpreted as signs of self-transcendence.
This of course raises the thorny issue of the relationship between religious belief and brain function – although the authors are careful to distinguish religion from spirituality. The study used questions to assess the subjects’ feelings of oneness with nature, ability to lose themselves in the moment (feel disconnected from time and space), and belief in a higher power. Those subjects with tumors removed in the areas mentioned experienced immediate increases in these phenomena, while those with tumors removed from other regions of the brain did not.
The piece that seems the least well understand at this time is the profound sense of spirituality that often accompanies these feelings of being outside one’s body or being one with everything. It is easy to understand why these would be extraordinary experiences that might compel someone to reconsider their views of reality (especially if they do not have a neurological explanation at hand). And it seems obvious that feeling one with god or the universe would lead to spiritual feelings about our place in the world.