“It’s not at all what we expected to see”

“Let’s take a few moments to review the initial MRI findings,” she said. “I believe Ravi’s compiled a handout with the new results.”

Our team had used Myrna’s multigenerational sample of clinically depressed and non-depressed women, and their children and grandchildren. We’d taken MRI scans of people at high and genetic risk for depression to see if there were any patterns among the brain structures of depressed and non-depressed participants that could allow us to develop more targeted and effective treatments.

And we’d added a new – and controversial – question to our study. We’d asked all participants to respond to a major question used in the clinical science literature to quantify inner life: How personally important is religion or spirituality to you? In addition to comparing the brain structures of depressed and non-depressed candidates, we wanted to see how spirituality was associated with brain structure, and how spirituality correlated with risk for depression. 

Ravi’s face still looked stunned and his hands jittery as he passed his stack of papers around the room. I took a two-page color handout from the pile. It was still warm from the printer. My eyes raced over the page, taking in the results, looking for whatever it was that seemed to have rattled Ravi. It took only a moment for me to see it.

On the top half of the page was a black rectangle with two brain images inside. The scan on the left showed the composite brain image of participants with low spirituality – those who had reported that religion or spirituality was of medium, mild, or low importance. The scan on the right showed the composite brain of participants with sustained, high spirituality – those who had said religion or spirituality was of high personal importance. 

The difference between the two images made my heart race and my spine tingle.

The brain on the left – the low-spiritual brain – was flecked intermittently with tiny red patches. But the brain on the right – the brain showing the neural structure of people with stable and high spirituality – had huge swaths of red, at least five times the size of the small flecks in the other scan. The finding was so clear and stunning, it stopped my breath. 

The high-spiritual brain was healthier and more robust than the low-spiritual brain. And the high-spiritual brain was thicker and stronger in exactly the same regions that weaken and wither in depressed brains. 

The room was utterly silent.

“It’s not at all what we expected to see,” Ravi said.

The air conditioner clanked on, a loud roar amid the stillness. Then a low chuckle rose from the back of the room.

“Well, well, Lisa,” someone said.

My closest, most treasured colleagues had been skeptical. But the data was persuasive. Spirituality appeared to protect against mental suffering. 

From “The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life” by Lisa Miller, PhD