Saturday science subject: Your spiritual side

Patients who go under the knife to remove certain types of brain tumors may wake up feeling more spiritual than before, according to a new study led by psychologist Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine in Italy.

As ScienceNow reports, Urgesi selected 88 patients with brain cancer and asked them to fill out a personality questionnaire before and after their surgery. One of the questionnaire's sections centered on "self transcendence," with questions about how close patients feel to other people and nature or how easy they find it to become deeply absorbed in an activity.

The results were quite interesting, as ScienceNow explains:

Patients with malignant tumors in posterior brain regions, including the temporal and parietal cortex, scored higher on the self-transcendence scale on average than did those with tumors in the frontal cortex, Urgesi and colleagues report today in Neuron. Moreover, these posterior tumor patients exhibited even higher self-transcendence scores after surgery. Additional analysis suggested that patients who had lost certain areas of the posterior parietal cortex were the most likely to show increases in self-transcendence. The researchers conclude that these regions normally inhibit transcendent thinking and that the damage caused by the tumor and the surgery weakens this inhibition. The researchers saw no postsurgical change in self-transcendence in the patients with frontal lobe tumors or in a group of meningioma patients, whose tumors in the membranes enveloping the brain could be removed without damaging the organ itself.

That part of the brain doesn't deal with just spirituality. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson told ScienceNow the same areas of the posterior parietal cortex "have been implicated in providing awareness of the body's position and location in space."

Urgesi's study has attracted some criticism, though. When speaking to Scientific American, Davidson called the questionnaire used in the study a "coarse measure that includes some strange items." Belgian neurologist Rik Vandenberghe further questioned the reliability of self-reporting by patients. And in the ScienceNow article, Danish psychologist Uffe Schjødt laments the dearth of additional information about the subjects, including "religiosity, religious practices, or mystical experiences post-surgery."

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