Spirituality and Cognitive Neuroscience: A Partnership for Refining Maps of the Mind

  • B. Les Lancaster


Spiritual and mystical traditions share with the approach of cognitive neuroscience an interest in mapping the mind. These traditions have always sought to find ways to promote a deeper understanding of our inner lives than simple untrained introspection on mental processes can reveal. Their insights arise through complex meditative, contemplative, and ritual practices directed at profoundly transforming the normal state of consciousness into one imbued with wisdom. These practices are complementary to the approach of cognitive neuroscience which studies states of mind from the outside, as it were. In this sense, an increasing number of neuroscientists view spirituality as a source of insights and practices that can be researched through neuroscientific analysis. There has been an exponential rise in research over some 20 years into changes in the brain and cognitive and emotional functions associated with spiritual practices. In large measure, claims by the spiritual traditions about the short- and long-term effects of these practices have been confirmed. Further areas in which cognitive neuroscience has drawn from the insights in spiritual and mystical traditions have focused on the nature of self and related mental processes such as memory and perception. The core feature in definitions of spirituality concerns our connectedness with a larger sphere—be that conceptualised in terms of a divine or more generally as an integral wholeness in the natural world. Given most neuroscientists’ faith in the hegemony of scientific materialism, this feature of spirituality has been more challenging, with a predominance of reductive theories. Nevertheless, ways in which the functioning of the brain may be incorporated into that larger picture are beginning to emerge, and—it is argued here—are likely to become increasingly influential in the future.


The sacred Cognitive neuroscience Scientific naturalism Meditation Attention Mindfulness Kabbalah Recurrent processing 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Alef Trust, School of Natural Sciences and PsychologyLiverpool John Moores UniversityLiverpoolUK

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