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Aug. 22, 2013 Volume 35, No. 1

Health psychologist chosen for theology-science fellowship

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Brick Johnstone, a health psychologist in the School of Health Professions, begins a nine-month fellowship next month at the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. Photo by Rob Hill.

Johnstone’s research could lead to mental exercises that generate positive emotions

By Mark Barna

While living in Berkeley, Calif., I attended meditation sessions at a local zen center. I brought a watch to the 40-minute sessions so I could peek at the time remaining. But eventually I didn’t need the watch. A feeling of anticipation would well up in me, then the center’s gong would sound, indicating the end of the session. I was able to tell how much time had passed through my internal clock.

Brick Johnstone, a health psychologist in the School of Health Professions, said that my “training the brain” to gauge time was similar to what he wants to achieve in his research with hospital patients. The difference, though, is that he hopes to elevate the training to encompass the development of positive mental states such as forgiveness, selflessness and empathy. Imagine, for example, a person severely injured by a drunk driver being able to forgive, accept and move on by following a brain-training strategy.

Johnstone specializes in the neuropsychology of spiritual experience. He also counsels hospital patients coming to terms with denial, guilt, rage and other negative emotions. This September, he will start a nine-month fellowship with seven other scholars at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. The fellowship is called “Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity.” 

During the fellowship, Johnstone will talk and share research with scholars of theology and the sciences from institutions across America, Germany, Sweden and Canada. One of the team’s research projects involves documenting the spiritual experiences of believers in various faiths, from Hindus in India to Protestants in Boone County, Mo.

 ‘Spiritual’ meaning

Several years ago, Johnstone created a buzz over his research into spiritual experiences when he gave interviews to a number of media outlets. Though some enthusiasts proclaimed that Johnstone had proven the existence of a supernatural power, perhaps even the Judeo-Christian God, Johnstone’s studies were actually more science than faith.

His work suggested that specific parts of the brain affect how people feel, think and behave. Over millennia, these experiences have been characterized as religious, spiritual and transcendent, among other lofty adjectives.

Johnstone said that understanding spiritual experiences might enable people to harness the positive emotions and attitudes that can spring from them. 

The health professor defines “spirituality” broadly. Spiritual is not necessarily supernatural. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and almost everyone else have experienced moments when empathy or oneness with all things fill the mind, Johnstone said. For a Christian it might be while singing a psalm. For an atheist or agnostic, it might be during a walk in the woods or while downhill skiing. 

“We are all spiritual in some sense. We look up at the stars and we get a lump in our throat and we feel it’s wonderful,” Richard Dawkins, author, biologist and atheist, said on CBS’s “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight” in July 2013. 

Brain lobes

The euphoria of spiritual experience is triggered by brain biology, Johnstone said. It relates to the release of biogenic amine neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Spiritual experience also appears to emanate from specific parts of the brain.

The brain’s right parietal lobe identifies the self, Johnstone said. People who have injured the right lobe can have trouble identifying themselves in pictures and gauging their strengths and weakness. But many times they also claim to have heightened spiritual experiences. 

During a selfless experience, neurotransmitters inhibit right lobe activity, Johnstone said. Several years ago, tests were conducted on Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns in deep meditation, a time when they said they felt selfless and one with all things, Johnstone said. Devices recorded that the right parietal lobe was receiving less blood flow. Parts of the lobe had actually shut down.

Out-of-body experiences may also be related to the shuttering of this lobe, Johnstone said. And perhaps also forgiveness. 

“The more willing you are to forgive, the less functional is your right parietal lobe,” Johnstone said. “In order to forgive, I’ve got to give up this focus that the self has been wronged.”

Empathy, meanwhile, appears to manifest from the left parietal lobe, which focuses outwardly toward others.  In several studies, people experiencing empathy had a galaxy of neurotransmitters firing in the left parietal lobe. Johnstone was surprised by the finding: He’d expected that inhibition of the right lobe, effecting selflessness, would generate the emotion. But someone who is selfless is not necessarily empathetic toward other people. 

Understanding how the brain works helps people learn about themselves and, perhaps, relate more positively toward others, Johnstone said. “There are ways to get along better with others, and they are brain-based,” he said. 

“Let’s try to figure out the best way to use what we are learning [in neuroscience] so that we can all get along better.”