March 16, 2010

What is "Self Transcendence"?

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent study by Italian researchers uncovered the fact that neurosurgery involving certain brain structures can effect personality changes that make one feel more "spiritual". 88 patients underwent pre- and post-surgical personality assessments while treated for tumours, and the results were combined with lesion mapping procedures (to precisely locate lesions) after surgery to measure changes in a personality construct called Self-Transcendence (ST). It was found that patients with posterior lesions experienced a considerable increase in 'spirituality' after the surgical removal of their tumours than those with anterior lesions, and that those with more aggressive types of tumour were most likely to describe themselves as religious. For a fuller report and discussion of this fascinating study, please see Mo Costandi's Neurophilosophy.

As I read through various articles detailing this announcement, I became intrigued at the constant mention of ST as a measure of personality. In his paper, Cosimo Urgesi describes ST as reflecting "the enduring tendency to transcend contingent sensorimotor representations and to identify the self as an integral part of the universe as a whole." ST is among several other personality dimensions in the psychobiological Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) that was devised by C. R. Cloninger and colleagues in 1994. The TCI has been used in genetics to show ST as a heritable trait, and in molecular neurosciences to show ST related to the functioning of the serotoninergic system. According to Cloninger et al. (1993) their model followed on from previous research that confirmed four dimensions of temperament; novelty-seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence, and added three more dimensions that mature in adulthood; self-directedness, cooperativeness and self-transcendence.

In their discussion of ST, Cloninger et al. begin with the amusing sentence: "Most people meditate or pray daily, which is more frequent than sexual intercourse according to population surveys". They go on to note the lack of spirituality-related traits from personality inventories including the well-known Five Factor Model, which is odd considering that spirituality is an integral aspect of people's lives and mental activity. In describing their definition of spirituality, they say:

"Self-transcendence refers generally to identification with everything conceived as essential and consequential parts of a unified whole. This involves a state of 'unitive consciousness' in which everything is part of one totality. In unitive consciousness, there is no individual self because there is no meaningful distinction between self and other—the person is simply aware of being an integral part of the evolution of the cosmos. This unitive perspective may be described as acceptance, identification, or spiritual union with nature and its source ... The person may identify (or feel a sense of spiritual union) with anything or everything. They may experience the feeling that they are part of or being guided by a wonderful intelligence, which is possibly the divine source of all phenomena. Ultimately, there may be loss of all distinctions between self and other by identifying with the concept of an immanent God as one-in-all."

So it all sounds rather New-Agey (the paper mentions Buddhism and nirvana, Taoism and Advaita Vedanta), but I was still curious about the actual questions themselves. In formulating questions to measure personality dimensions, care is taken to ensure that they accurately represent the concepts they try to measure. Moreover, statistics such as Cronbach's Alpha are employed to ensure that the measure has a high level of internal consistency; the higher, the better it is at measuring a personality construct. In this context ST consisted of three sub-scales; Self-forgetfulness vs. self-consciousness, transpersonal identification, and spiritual acceptance vs. materialism, all three exhibiting a Cronbach Alpha of above 0.7. This indicates that each of the three sub-scales were reliable in excess of 70% in measuring what they claimed to measure.

PsychMaven kindly helped me aquire a copy of the TCI. Bearing in mind that the "questions" are actually statements that one ought to rate on a 5-point scale (1 = Definitely false, 5 = Definitely true), here is the complete list (in order of appearance) that purport to contribute to the ST dimension of personality:

12. I often feel a strong sense of unity with all the things around me.

25. Often I have unexpected flashes of insight or understanding while relaxing.

29. I sometimes feel so connected to nature that everything seems to be part of one living process.

32. I think that most things that are called miracles are just chance.

42. Sometimes I have felt like I was part of something with no limits or boundaries in time and space.

43. I sometimes feel a spiritual connection to other people that I cannot explain in words.

52. Sometimes I have felt my life was being directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being.

56. I have had moments of great joy in which I suddenly had a clear, deep feeling of oneness with all that exists.

68. I often become so fascinated with what I’m doing that I get lost in the moment – like I’m detached from time and place.

73. I often feel a strong spiritual or emotional connection with all the people around me.

91. I have made real personal sacrifices in order to make the world a better place – like trying to prevent war, poverty and injustice.

95. It often seems to other people like I am in another world because I am so completely unaware of things going on around me.

99.I often feel like I am a part of the spiritual force on which all life depends.

106. I have had personal experiences in which I felt in contact with a divine and wonderful spiritual power.

112. Often when I look at an ordinary thing, something wonderful happens – I get the feeling that I am seeing it fresh for the first time.

118. Religious experiences have helped me to understand the real purpose of my life.

143. I believe that all life depends on some spiritual order or power that cannot be completely explained.

148. I often feel so connected to the people around me that it is like there is no separation between us.

151. I am often called “absent-minded” because I get so wrapped up in what I am doing that I lose track of everything else.

157. I often do things to help protect animals and plants from extinction.

175. I have a vivid imagination.

190. I would gladly risk my own life to make the world a better place.

206. I think it is unwise to believe in things that cannot be explained scientifically.

212. Often I become so involved in what I am doing that I forget where I am for a while.

223. I have had experiences that made my role in life so clear to me that I felt very excited and happy.

232. Reports of mystical experiences are probably just wishful thinking.

It could be argued that statements such as these are anything but 'transcendent'. As Costandi eloquently put it in his report, Urgesi et al. fall short in their study of truly defining spirituality because it is likely that different patients will hold different ideas of spirituality and how it affects their lives. Furthermore, spirituality is an area that consists of many ideas apart from 'transcendence' which, by all accounts, is generally taken to refer to a state of being philosophically and affectively 'above and beyond' this world and all forms of mundane issues. Although many items deal with experiencing spiritual connections and having a sense of oneness with the universe, items that attempt to measure patients' attempts to save plants and animals from extinction hardly qualify as being transcendent and neither does gladly risking one's life for any purpose do the same. Having a "vivid imagination", however, is certainly a questionable inclusion which is bound to draw some sarcastic remarks.

We may quibble about the exactness of ST items and whether they accurately measure spirituality, the neurological findings nevertheless support the dependence of religious beliefs on brain function and even further increases evidence that religious beliefs can be experimentally studied. Urgesi et al. even go as far as to say that "dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviours".

Urgesi, C., Aglioti, S., Skrap, M., & Fabbro, F. (2010). The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence Neuron, 65 (3), 309-319 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.026

Cloninger CR, Svrakic DM, & Przybeck TR (1993). A psychobiological model of temperament and character. Archives of General Psychiatry, 50 (12), 975-90 PMID: 8250684


  1. do you think this means anything to an atheist? if so, please explain...


  2. Hi Anon, I expect atheists will interpret this study as further evidence that religion and spirituality beliefs are embedded within the structures of the brain. In this study when there was a surgical "manipulation", the religiosity of the patients increased. This supports the idea that such beliefs have a neurobiological origin.

    The study doesn't comment on whether a god exists or not.

  3. great stuff :)

    spirituality is such a "fat word" as it means so many different things in different contexts. Throwing it in to a study makes it almost a foregone conclusion that the results can be twisted to mean anything anyone wants depending on their agenda...

    on a tangent, "having a sense of oneness with the universe" is also anecdotally reported by the users of certain psychotropic and "recreational" drugs so I wonder what the neurological implications would be there..

    "spirituality" reduced to chemical reactions.. controversial.

  4. Psychmaven, thanks for your comments, and thanks again for helping me find a copy of the TCI. :)

    Your comments on the neurochemistry of spiritual experiences involving psychotropic drugs and the like are of interest to me too. I should do some research on this.