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Spiritual Brains and Embodied Minds: Neural Bases of Self-Transcendence and Empathy (SPIRIT)
Start date: 01 Sep 2014, End date: 31 Aug 2016 PROJECT  FINISHED 

The representation of our own and others’ mental events is strongly linked to mapping internal bodily states (embodiment). At the same time, the ability to transcend actual body perceptions and actions (self-transcendence) and to project self-images into scenarios that are not entirely transparent to sense modalities (spirituality) is inherently linked to human beings. Recent neuroimaging studies have addressed the issue of the neural correlates of spiritual experiences and empathy. Information on how the activation of spiritual self-representations impacts the embodied understanding of others’ mental states, however, is inconclusive and causative evidence on this link is scarce.SPIRIT aims to study the cognitive processes and neural mechanisms underpinning the influence of self-transcendence and spirituality on the embodied instantiations of social perception and empathy. In particular, SPIRIT will study the:a) Neural correlates of implicit and explicit spiritual representations of the self;b) Effects of the activation of self-transcendence representations following spiritual word priming or meditation practice on the cognitive processes and the neural correlates of empathy for pain.c) Short-term plastic changes of spiritual self-representations and empathy induced by neurophysiologic regulation of neural activity.Integrating the brain stimulation expertise of the fellow with learning state-of-the-art neuroimaging methods, SPIRIT fosters a multimodal approach to explore how the complex neurofunctional organization of the human brain allows the development of spiritual self-representations and the reaching of more abstract (dis-embodied) forms of social perception. This approach will be disseminated in academic seminars and in international public conferences for lay people. Merging together the study of spirituality, self-transcendence and embodied social cognition will ultimately allow a better understanding of how the brain represents the social self.
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