By Dayna Mason

When we have a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, regardless of how we define that something—Universe, Higher Self, God, Nature, Spirit, etc.—research has shown that we experience greater emotional wellbeing and are happier, healthier and live longer.

Science and spirituality

Einstein recognized that science and spirituality are interdependent, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” By “religion” he meant religious or spiritual experience, not the institution we organize around the naturally occurring spiritual phenomena.

August Kekulé, the German chemist responsible for founding the structure of benzene, imagined and knew the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having an intuitive daydream of a snake seizing its own tail. Intuition is one of the mysteries of consciousness that links the analytic mind to insights of the spiritual.

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature,” wrote physicist Max Planck, “because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

The advancement of quantum physics has allowed spiritual phenomenon to be considered in scientific investigation. But many scientists still find these phenomena “spooky.” Two well-known discoveries exemplify the reason why some scientists may feel unnerved by the spiritual: the “observer effect” and “quantum entanglement.”

The observer effect is the discovery that the outcome of a quantum experiment can change depending on whether or not we observe some particles. Quantum entanglement occurs when two particles become inextricably linked, and whatever happens to one immediately affects the other, regardless of how far apart they are. These connections are instantaneous, operating outside the usual flow of time. Albert Einstein famously described this as “spooky action at a distance.”

If the way the world behaves depends on how—or if—we look at it, and everything is potentially connected, no wonder scientists struggle with incorporating these mysterious events into experimentation.

Spirituality registers differently in the brain

A study published in Cerebral Cortex suggests that there is a universal, cognitive basis for spirituality. Researchers discovered that a sense of connection with something greater than the self, personally relevant to the subject, activates a specific part of the brain—a “neurobiological home” for spirituality, a part of the brain distinctly different from the effect of other forms of relaxation.

These spiritual experiences enhance attention and shut down activity in the area of the brain that focuses on the self, reducing or even eliminating the barrier between self and others. The study found that these “pronounced shifts in perception buffer the effects of stress” and can be accessed by everyone independent of any religious affiliation.

This stress buffering could explain why some studies find that people with a spiritual practice are more psychologically healthy, lead emotionally richer lives, and live longer.

According to a theory developed at the Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab and validated by neuroscience, “Humans have evolved two neurally distinct and antagonistic modes of thinking: analytic reasoning, built on the evidence of the senses, and empathetic understanding, built on internal information (emotional and visceral awareness). At the core of empathetic understanding lies our capacities for intersubjectivity (understanding human experience) and ethical awareness.”

We are wired to love each other and do the right thing.

We are born with built-in empathy and goodness

Before babies can even speak, they are capable of distinguishing right from wrong and making moral decisions, according to a series of studies at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, also known as “The Baby Lab.”

The puppet experiments

Researchers present a puppet show to babies, where one puppet tries to push a ball up a hill. Then, either another puppet comes along and helps the first puppet push the ball up the hill, or another puppet shows up and hinders the first puppet by pushing the ball down the hill.

After the babies watch these scenarios, the researchers present both the helpful and the not helpful puppets to the babies to see which puppet the 3-to 10-month-old babies reach for. Almost every baby reaches for the helping puppet. Even more amazing is that babies as young as 12 weeks-old also choose the helpful puppet. While young babies can’t reach yet, they can control their eyes and science indicates that they look at what they like. When presented with the two puppets, most of the young babies look at and settle their gaze toward the nice puppets.

Babies have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior and show a basic disposition of goodness.

Belief in a “Higher Power” makes us more other-oriented

According to 2014 Pew research, 89% of Americans believe in a “Higher Power,” spiritual force, or God. Whether we follow a traditional religious practice or personally identified spiritual one, those who believe in something beyond our material existence are motivated toward transformation to attain their highest human potential.

Psychology researcher and author, Steve Taylor, PhD, says those who practice a state of wakefulness (a more expansive and harmonious state of being), “experience a higher-functioning state that makes life more fulfilling, exhilarating, and meaningful than it may appear in a normal state of being. They feel a strong impulse to make positive contributions to the world, to live in meaningful and purposeful ways, rather than simply trying to satisfy their own desires, enjoy themselves, or pass the time.

We are social animals and have an evolutionary need to feel connected to the world and to others. Belief in a “Higher Power” causes a psychological shift that promotes prosocial, also known as  “other-oriented,” behavior, whereby we make the conscious effort to put the thoughts, needs, and feelings of others first, without abandoning our own needs.

Surrendering to something bigger than the self

Our language historically recognizes the spiritual as the conscious breath that animates humans. The word spirit means “breath” as in what animates us, gives us life. The word inspire is from the Latin inspirare, which means “breathe into” as in to supernaturally “impart a truth or idea.”

We are an “altricial” species. From the moment of birth, we are dependent on others for survival. This may be why surrender to something outside ourselves feels intrinsically secure and stress-relieving.

Spirituality is a universal human experience and still mostly a mystery to us. But however we choose to define it, it should inspire us and provide solace, guidance, strength, and hope.

Whether we connect with something outside of our immediate material experience by attending a church service, or taking a walk in nature, a practice of consciously letting go and giving in to something bigger, moments of realizing that we don’t need to do anything, has proven to be beneficial to our overall wellbeing.

 

RESOURCES:

CNN (Video) Are babies born knowing right from wrong?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_KKrdK1cJY

 

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