MU researchers find evidence of a correlation between epilepsy and religiosity

The study was one of many conducted by MU researchers into the relationship between religion and the brain.

MU researchers have found further evidence to support the idea that people suffering from epilepsy also experience higher levels of spirituality, backing up previous research on the topic.

“There’s been previous research that has indicated that people with epilepsy might have heightened levels of spirituality,” junior Greyson Holliday said. “But we specifically looked at how that spirituality manifest itself in their life.”

Holliday joined the partnership of Brick Johnstone, neuropsychologist and professor of health psychology, and Daniel Cohen, assistant professor of religious studies, in authoring the article on heightened religiosity and epilepsy. The pair have been looking into traumatic brain injuries and epilepsy for over 10 years together.

Religiosity “relates to belief that the Bible or other spiritual texts have special, personal meaning and divine significance,” according to their article, which was published in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

The researchers had participants answer questions from two surveys. One measures daily spiritual experiences, meaning, values and beliefs, forgiveness and spiritual coping, while the other looks specifically at behavioral characteristics associated with epilepsy, such as emotionality, philosophical interests, hypermorality, religiosity and personal destiny.

“We’re interested in the neuropsychology [of spirituality] and saying, ‘Well, that’s an interesting process,’” Cohen said. “The argument that we’re making is that the ability to have [spiritual] experiences is a human universal. It’s built into our neural-architecture.”

This research is focused on learning more about the relationship between religion and spirituality and neuropsychological processes. The study is not promoting any individual religion and does not argue anything about the truthfulness or validity of spirituality or religion.

“I want to be clear that we’re not suggesting that religion or spirituality is all in your head,” Holliday said.

The researchers hoped to discover more about the characteristics of this spirituality, specifically looking at the basis of the inclination.

“One of the things that we wanted to look at was whether this [tendency toward spirituality or religiosity] was more emotionally based or philosophically based,” Cohen said. “Emotionality did not seem to be significant here, whereas philosophical interest did seem significant.”

Philosophical interest has to do with metaphysical or moral thoughts about the universe, whereas emotionality refers more to feelings or affective reactions to experiences.

Currently, the researchers are studying patients before and after brain surgery to see if and how their perceptions of religion might change.

“We’re not interested in finding the God-spot in the brain because there is no such thing,” Cohen said. “We’re not interested in saying this is the religion part of the brain. The brain is complicated, it’s hyper-interactive.”

Cohen points to the collaborative nature of their research as an advantage.

“We see that as potent to informing one another about how we can look at [these issues] from different perspectives,” Cohen said. “We find that overall it strengthens the work.”

For Holliday, working with Johnstone and Cohen and co-authoring a published article as an undergraduate student has been beneficial.

“I feel like doing this has given meaning to a lot of the things I’ve been learning in my classes,” Holliday said.

Holliday also points to the importance of the work because the research provides evidence that spirituality is a human tendency.

“Spirituality has such a big impact on humans, so the more that we can understand about that, the better,” Holliday said.

Edited by Kyle LaHucik |

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