Brain and boundaries

By observing brain cancer patients before and after brain surgery, researchers in Italy have found that damage to the posterior part of the brain, specifically in an area called the parietal cortex, can increase patients’ feelings of “self transcendence,” or feeling at one with the universe. The parietal cortex is the region that is is usually involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation.
Discover Magazine blog

Its a rich and interesting field, finding physiological correlates to whatever goes under the “spiritual” umbrella: A sense of awe, gratitude, compassion. A widened sense of “us”. A stronger and more mature sense of ethics. A reduced sense of boundaries, or recognition of boundaries as imagined. Effects of meditation or prayer practice, such as a more stable attention, improved self-regulation, and recognition of thoughts as thoughts. States of various kinds. And much more. Each of these are most likely related to short- and long-term changes in different and specific brain regions, and also the endocrine system, immune system, cellular function, and so on.

In this case, it is interesting that removing parts of the parietal cortex can lead to reduced sense of boundaries. Our body and nervous system is designed to take in, organize, and make sense of sensory information. But we can also say that it is designed to filter information. Of the vast field of potential sensory input, our body is designed to take in only a thin slice – only that which is essential for survival.

Our system then organizes and makes sense of this information by producing an overlay of images, including imagined boundaries. This too is required for survival as it helps us orient and navigate in the world. And it helps us whether this overlay is recognized as imagined or not.

For some reason, it seems that the brain – perhaps through the parietal cortex – has evolved to specifically make these imagined boundaries appear real, solid, and inherent “out there” in the world. In other words, it’s the brain’s job to say to itself “these boundaries are real and out there in the world”. And since the main boundary is between I and the wider world, it also says to itself “this image of a doer, or observer, or human self, is what I am, and I am not the rest of what appears in experience”. This too must have an evolutionary function. It does add an extra edge to the survival instincts, even if it also creates stress and strife. The benefits of identification must generally have outweighed the cost.

Why is it so? It’s maybe not so easy to say. I am sure plenty of people over the generations have “woken up” out of the trance of identification as our own images of an I and Me, but it must not have aided their survival or reproduction significantly compared with those still identified. Maybe they disengaged somewhat with regular life. Maybe it was seen as too strange by others. More likely, they just went on with life as normal, just like anyone else.

Evolutionary psychology is a very interesting, and often quite useful, field. But it is also mostly a field of plausible speculations. We see some features in how we function today. Imagine how they were useful for our ancestors in certain not uncommon circumstances. And then assume that’s why they were passed on.


  • brain and mysticism
    • study
    • brain as filter – one way of looking at it
      • brain/senses filter sensory information – only thin slice is picked up/brought to awareness
      • also, filter from Big Mind to sense of separate I – one of its jobs

It is a rich field, finding physiological correlates to meditation, prayer, compassion, gratitude, a wide and inclusive sense of “us”, and so on. Or more generally, to states (temporary, infrequent, habitual), stages, and short- and long-term effects of different types of meditation and prayer practice.

It makes sense that the different facets of spirituality is connected with different parts of the brain. For instance, meditation leads to increased activity and thickness in the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with attention and self-regulation.


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