December 27, 2003
Serotonin Receptor Concentration Varies Inversely With Spirituality

A fascinating article published in the American Journal Of Psychiatry by Swedish medical researcher Lars Farde M.D., Ph.D. and colleagues from the Karolinska Institute have found that the concentration of serotonin receptors in the brain correlates inversely with spirituality. (same abstract here or here)

Jacqueline Borg, Bengt Andrée, Henrik Soderstrom, and Lars Farde
The Serotonin System and Spiritual Experiences
Am J Psychiatry 2003 160: 1965-1969.

METHOD: Fifteen normal male subjects, ages 20-45 years, were examined with PET and the radioligand [11C]WAY100635. Personality traits were assessed with the Swedish version of the Temperament and Character Inventory self-report questionnaire. Binding potential, an index for the density of available 5-HT1A receptors, was calculated for the dorsal raphe nuclei, the hippocampal formation, and the neocortex. For each region, correlation coefficients between 5-HT1A receptor binding potential and Temperament and Character Inventory personality dimensions were calculated and analyzed in two-tailed tests for significance. RESULTS: The authors found that the binding potential correlated inversely with scores for self-transcendence, a personality trait covering religious behavior and attitudes. No correlations were found for any of the other six Temperament and Character Inventory dimensions. The self-transcendence dimension consists of three distinct subscales, and further analysis showed that the subscale for spiritual acceptance correlated significantly with binding potential but not with the other two subscales. CONCLUSIONS: This finding in normal male subjects indicated that the serotonin system may serve as a biological basis for spiritual experiences. The authors speculated that the several-fold variability in 5-HT1A receptor density may explain why people vary greatly in spiritual zeal.

Are there particular alleles in genes that cause different humans to have different numbers of serotonin receptors? Do more spiritual people, on average, have genetic variations that make them produce fewer serotonon receptors per nerve cell or fewer nerve cells that make serotonin receptors?

Currently, are spiritual people having more children than non-spiritual people? Therefore, are the alleles that increase serotonin receptor concentrations being selected against? Is the extent to which spiritualism correlates with larger family size different in different societies? So are some societies being selected for to be more spiritual more than other societies?

To reiterate an argument I've made in the past: Once it becomes possible to control what genetic variations people pass on to their offspring and once genetic variations are discovered that alter personality then at that point the average personality types born to people of different regions, countries, occupations, economic classes, and religious beliefs will diverge. People will make decisions to make their children more like what they want ideal children to be. Imagine religious believers choosing to make their children have personalities that are highly spiritual while at the same time scientists and engineers choose to have children who are highly rational and skeptical. This could lead to genetic religious wars.

If people in some regions of the world decide to make their children more spiritual and other regions make their children more rational and skeptical then one can imagine wars being fought as a result of conflicts of values that flow from fundamental differences in brain wiring. One can also imagine wars fought to stop the people or governments of opposing countries from creating offspring that are either seen as a security threat (e.g. a highly willing deeply spiritual suicide martyr personality type) or as a blasphemy against god.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 December 27 01:01 PM  Biological Mind

back40 said at December 27, 2003 3:28 PM:

While it is likely that selection will be attempted I suspect it will not work out as intended. For example, serotonin binding potential may be important to mental traits other than spirituality. Perhaps some forms of creativity or inductive talents are also related? It may be irrational to select for rationality. Eventually a complex map that accounts for tradeoffs will be made - assuming we survive the early phases - but I suspect it will not allow much specific optimization of individual traits without unacceptable limitation of other traits. These suspicions are based on the history of past interventions in natural systems and may not be applicable in this case, but if so it will be exceptional.

Joseph Hertzlinger said at December 27, 2003 9:47 PM:

There are different ways of being spiritual. I suspect adherents of most traditional religions will be wary of the sort of spirituality that causes one to join the Cult-of-the-Month Club.

Bob Badour said at December 28, 2003 7:58 AM:


I have known a couple cult-of-the-month types, and I would say their defining characteristic seems to be a lack of spirituality. I suggest their behaviour has more to do with sociopathy than with spirituality.

David said at December 28, 2003 11:35 AM:

"spirituality" is a highly abstract term and in and of itself cannot predict an individual's likelihood to be an adherent of organized religion. That serotonin, being a critical arbiter of mood, empathy, sleep-cycles, and other complex nuerological phenomena, plays a role in "spirituality" should be self-evident. I would wager that further research would unearth all sorts of interesting correlations between a brain's ability to bind serotonin (and thus remove it from active circulation in the blood stream, which, I gather, is what having more receptors means) and the way that brain processes emotions. Indeed, I believe Joseph LeDoux is doing some very interesting work in this area. But I agree with you that many interesting legal issues will arise as we enter the world of genetic programming and neuroceuticals.

Patrick said at January 1, 2004 3:48 AM:

Do we see the possibility of a blood test for atheism? And how will theocracies use this? This will be possible decades before any genetic tinkering can occurr.

Jonathan said at January 1, 2004 11:28 AM:

Conversely, do we see the possibility of a blood test claiming to identify religious believers, and how will atheist states use this?

Technically, of course, the notion of spirit as distinct from matter should mean that more spiritual people ought not try to manipulate the genes of their children to make them more spiritual. As, being spiritual people, they would a) not trust a material technology to improve the spirit, and b) would know the designer of their genetic code did an infinitely better job than is within their poor power to add or detract. But, logic didn't stop the Inquisition.

Lois Beckerman, L.Ac. Acupuncturist said at July 3, 2004 2:13 PM:

Do the receptors vary for men as compared to women. Does either sex have more receptors. Have any studies been executed?

stian eriksen said at December 30, 2004 7:49 AM:

the brain and SQ;I havent read the material for a while but it must help to do so haha(i am busy)

Eva Ng said at April 24, 2005 1:37 PM:

The idea of spirituality vs. religiosity hasn't been defined clearly in this discussion. Spiritual people may not be religious (adhering to any institutionalized religion), and religious people are often not spiritual (pious church people who seek the orderly social structure that institutionalized religions provide). So much so that this confusion may mix up two very separate types of people: the kind who wants to explore the unknown and are comfortable with uncertainty vs. the kind that needs to impose order on their surroundings and experience and have low tolerance for uncertainty.

I also disagree with the assumption that people who value rationality belongs to the un-spiritual type, and that spiritual types are necessarily irrational--eg. Einstein. Rationality is a way of looking at the world and a consciously exercised method of problem solving. Rationality is a tool in the cognitive tool box, a tool which is sharpened and wielded with skill in scientific thinking. That does not mean it is the definitive way of thinking even for scientists. It would be highly irrational to assume that all the phenomema of the world could be explained rationally--eg. Economics and human behavoir. Most people who consider themselves 'rational' may not be aware of the degree of their own irrationality. Superstars of rational thinking may find it limiting.

It seems that it would be important to determine exactly how 'spirituality' is determined in this study. For people looking for a way out of things or immediate reality like the 'spiritual flavor of the month type' , these might be escape artists and may overlap with substance abusers? Real spiritual paths may demand the kind of commitment and concentration not affordable for such flighty types.

Chip Shastid said at September 24, 2007 3:20 PM:

This is an interesting question. When I was 9 years old, I became strongly aware of the cognitive dissonance that was implicit in the teachings of the church and the reality that I observed. MY mother and father were at opposite poles tho he never expressed his views, conversely my mother was a staunch even excessively Catholic believer. I first understood the difficulty of any flexibility of thought when again at nine years of age, I simply stated the facts that I knew. My clearest memory of an Catholic priest actually screaming and red faced threw me out of his office. From that time on I have studied all religions and seen the base as a viral meme. In her later life my mother took up mediums and other cult like belief. Now I know she was intellegent, but not able to break away from this irrational pattern. Now I wonder if this is a dominant trait or was I lucky enough to get a mixed or homozygous set of these genes. My brother and sister are indifferent to religions. I wonder if a retrospective genetic study of the followers of Jim Jones might Shed some light on this,

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©