July 27, 2008

Interpreting the Serotonin-Spirituality Link

You have probably heard about a Swedish study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and popularized by Psychology Today and other mainstream news outlets finding a link between serotonin and spirituality. I am not going to put much stock in this until I have read the original study and the findings have been replicated by independent researchers. However, I do have some words of caution for those trying to make sense out of these findings and their possible implications.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter with many functions, one of which involves the regulation of mood. Clinical depression is associated with low serotonin levels in the brain. Most modern antidepressants (e.g., Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, etc.) work by indirectly increasing available serotonin in the brain. That is why this class of drugs is known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Data from the Swedish study suggest that serotonin may be associated with "spiritual experiences." Specifically, increased serotonin activity in the brain may be associated with various spiritual experiences (e.g., transcendence, etc.).

Even if it holds up, this is not a particularly groundbreaking finding. We have long known that drugs such as LSD that influence neural transmission, resulting in experiences often described as "spiritual." Still, these findings may help elucidate one neural pathway by which this occurs.

What studies like this do certainly imply is that spirituality involves biology as well as culture and environment. There are no supernatural forces at work here, but one's brain chemistry can certainly lead one to experience phenomena which one interprets as supernatural.

But we should be cautious of what we are seeing in the mainstream media about this study. Some are trying to interpret these and other similar findings as evidence that spirituality is less about culture and more about biological characteristics (remember that god gene nonsense?). The problem with this is that environmental experiences can and do influence serotonin levels. Biology is not independent from but interacts with one's environment. Going from studies like this to the conclusion that god belief is inborn are simply not justified.

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