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 journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


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 (US)
Pages (from-to)380-388
Number of pages9
JournalBiological psychiatry
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 15 2022


  • Hyper-religiosity
  • Imaging
  • Lesion network mapping
  • Periaqueductal gray
  • Religion
  • Spirituality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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