How Our Mental Health Crisis Could Lead to a Spiritual Awakening

Author and psychologist Lisa Miller discusses her research on the relationship between spirituality and wellbeing

For the last several years, psychology professor Lisa Miller has traveled the world to get out a message that everyone wants to hear: There is a solution to the crisis of wellbeing we see today, and it is well within our grasp. In fact, it’s our birthright, she says. Depression, anxiety, and the skyrocketing suicide rates in our young people can be alleviated only if we support their spiritual development.

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Lisa Miller, author of “The Awakened Brain.” (Nina Subin)

“We are born with an innate capacity for spiritual life. We’re born with a neuro-docking station, and it is who we are as much as we have two eyes, two ears, and a nose,” said Miller, author of bestsellers “The Awakened Brain” and “The Spiritual Child.” She’s also the founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI) and a professor of psychology and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University.

“Now we have 20 years of science; MRI studies, genotyping, epidemiology, twin studies … etiology,” Miller said. “It is game changing. There’s a whole science around this.”

The bottom line is this: With a strong spiritual life, these young people are about 80 percent less likely to commit suicide. Without it, they’re at five times higher risk. In four years of working with the Pentagon, Miller has seen the U.S. Army implement a system of spiritual support, and suicide rates come down as a result.

Spirituality was found to be 80 percent protective against substance dependence and abuse, and 60 percent protective against major depressive disorder.

We are biologically wired for spirituality, which also shows we are more than our biology. Human beings are designed to be in conversation with life and perceive what a higher power can reveal to us.

In “The Awakened Brain,” Miller lays out the neuroscience of spirituality and what 20 years of research reveals about spirituality and health, as well as her own journey of discovery and how we can address society’s spiritual deficit.

“I’ve been on the road since 2015,” Miller said. “Parents would cry and teachers would be so eager for this, and they were extremely receptive to the core message because people knew in their hearts this was true.”

Developmental Depression

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In “The Awakened Brain,” Lisa Miller lays out the neuroscience of spirituality and what 20 years of research reveals about spirituality and health.

In 2009, Brad Peterson at Columbia University studied the physiological foundation for depression, and found that depression could not only be seen in the brain, but in their children and grandchildren’s brains too. Two generations later, there was a 28 percent relative thinness in the brain’s right cortex, indicating a risk for depression in those who don’t necessarily suffer from depression themselves.

Miller was interested in seeing if spirituality, too, was visible in the brain. The opportunity came when her colleague Myrna Weissman shared this three-generation dataset with her a few years later. In 2012, the results came back, and shocked the team.

Participants from a large cohort of clinically depressed and non-depressed women, their children, and grandchildren had been asked, “How personally important is religion or spirituality?” It was meant to assess the diversity of the participants, and aside from Miller, no one had expected any significant pattern in the MRI scans of their brains.

In the composite image of respondents who said religion or spirituality was of medium, mild, or low importance, the brains were thin, showing a risk for depression.

But the brains of those who said religion or spirituality was highly important were strong and robust in exactly the areas of the brain that weaken in those with depression.

This led Miller to the idea of the awakened brain.

Further research revealed that depression comes knocking at our door at certain periods in our life, and from that Miller coined the term “developmental depression.”

Those with strong spirituality by age 26 were 75 percent protected against major depression for the next 10 years, but those who had previously suffered depression and had strong spirituality were 90 percent protected.

“Our bodies have developmental paths,” Miller said, like puberty and menopause. “Our deep capacity, our inborn reservoir, our awakened brain has its own developmental path. There are bridges of life, the coming of age to adulthood, and midlife—we even have nicknames: sophomore slump, midlife crisis—with these really hard times, it’s hardwired, inborn, innate, to have a spiritual emergence.”

Those with children may notice or remember that young children are innately spiritual, and may ask questions about God or death and the great beyond even without exposure to the ideas. In young adulthood, people are called to deeply question their purpose. Then, again in midlife, people are called to revisit that sacred purpose: Have they lived up to it? Did they walk a path of meaning and contribution? These are big questions, and can shake us to our core.

There are other touch points, like the birth of a child or the death of a family member, that prompt us toward spiritual development as well, Miller added.

“It opens us up,” she said. “We are built to awaken.”

“Yesterday, everything was fine, and today, suddenly, ‘My life isn’t good enough. I’m not good enough. What have I done with my life; what is my purpose, and have I fulfilled that?’ There’s an existential longing, there’s a painful developmental depression,” Miller said.

In today’s culture, the expected response may be to escape through diversions—drugs, media—or medicate. Medication is fine and well for those who respond positively to it, but one should not stop there, Miller said. This is an invitation to pursue those existential questions and seek answers to one’s purpose in relation to ourselves and beyond ourselves.

We are born with this capacity for spirituality, and can develop and strengthen it.

And when this happens, our brain changes.

Neural Pathways of Spirituality

The pathways that are dysfunctional in depressed brains are highly connected in spiritual brains.

With fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Miller was able to see real-time brain activity of participants in another study. Young adults between ages 18 and 27 were asked to share a story about a stressful event, a relaxing event, and a spiritual experience.

When they listened to their spiritual narrative, Miller found four clear patterns. The brain shuts down its “rumination box” and then activated the ventral attention network—switching from a top-down to bottom-up sense of awareness, allowing us to perceive and participate in things we weren’t originally looking for. This is the network in use when we receive flashes of clarity and insight, she explains in her book.

The frontotemporal network also comes online—it’s the network in use during relational bonding, like when one is held by a loved one. Lastly, the posterior cingulate cortex activated while the inferior parietal lobe activity was reduced, showing there was less perceived distinction between self and other, and time and space.

In short, during spiritual experiences we shift our orientation of attention, feel a sense of love and bonding, and our sense of self expands as something that is both distinct but also part of a greater oneness. “We are loved, held, and guided, and we are never alone,” Miller said, adding that this is what all the great religious traditions teach as well.

From these narratives, Miller found two types of awareness: Achieving awareness is what we use to organize and control our lives, and the focus is narrow, on what we want to have and how to get it.

Awakened awareness brings wider perception—visually, audibly, and spiritually—we perceive more choices and opportunities available to us, feel more connected to others and to life, are more creative, and see more meaning. This is when we ask, “What is life showing me now?” Miller said. We become more open and more altruistic.


Psychologist Carl Jung described synchronicity as “circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection.” Seemingly unrelated events are connected by meaning, too uncanny to be called coincidence.

With awakened awareness, people increasingly notice synchronicity. Miller notes that this is not merely us imposing meaning where there is none just because we’re looking for it. It is actually life responding to our quest and inquiry, because we have become open to conversation.

“There’s a shift from the ‘I’ve got to have it. What do I want? How I do I get it?’ … to ‘What is life showing me now? What are these synchronicities revealing to me?'” Miller said. “That that is God’s guidance. ‘What is God laid before us? What is God showing us through one another?'”

Miller says that in her talks around the world, no one has dismissed the idea of synchronicities. They might have done so 15 years ago, but today “people are so hungry and so ready, and they get it because they’ve had, everyone has had profoundly meaningful synchronicities, far too probabilistic to have happened by chance, the type of synchronicities that opens a door—you meet the person you really love. You find the job that makes you feel alive. You understand life in a deeper way.”

“We need awakened awareness; we need our neuro-docking station of transcendent awareness, gut instinct, intuition, synchronicity, dreams, to move in new directions, and that’s what we can do now as a society: Validate, as hard data, spiritual experience.”

Where Did Our Spirituality Go in the First Place?

Even without looking at one of the many reports in recent years pointing to a mental health crisis, post-COVID, everyone senses something is wrong.

Miller pointed to federal statistics that show suicide rising to a top cause of death for young adults, driven by school shootings, and homicide following closely.

“It is a desanctification of life; we have lost sight of who we are as spiritual beings, as rays of the sun, emanations from God,” Miller said. “My word is God, some people say. Hashem, Allah, Source. We are godly beings, divine beings, and we’ve lost sight of that.”

“This is not a problem with phones or guns or any other piece of machinery. There’s no piece of metal in the world that can answer this. This is a problem in the desanctification of our culture,” she said. The phone delivers culture. The guns are given to people immersed in culture. We have lost the spiritual footing in our culture—and what we have is radical materialism.”

If we go back to around 1950, American life was deeply spiritual, Miller said. We talked about God, the meaning of life, and people were free to question their purpose. But by the 1980s we had taken spirituality out of the public square.

“We took down the Christmas tree and all of that from the town square, and with that we actually became radically exclusive. We lost the most previous American gift of all,” she said. “You tell me about Easter and she tells me about Ramadan, Diwali, and I tell you about Hannukah—we lost the vibrancy. We talk about multiculturalism when it comes to race and gender but we need to talk about multiculturalism around spiritual life. There should be a great embrace, a profound embrace of diversity of spiritual life.”

When we stopped talking about religion, spirituality somehow became taboo as well, as if we had given up our freedom of expression, she said, and it became our new normal. We might have whispered about the topics by the water cooler, but it was no longer acceptable in common daily discussion.

“A public square minus a spiritual core is a radically transactional public square,” Miller said.

What we’re left to talk about is “What do you do? What does your partner do? Where do you live?” she said. It became all about work. “And the worst part of all was that we went from a foundationally spiritual society—where the air and water of our culture, until 40 years ago, was a deep-felt assumption of spiritual presence, of spiritual life—to instead a radically materialist society. ‘It’s only real if you can touch it.'”

But the good news is that the science of today completely overturns that.

For “anyone over 25, now is the time for all great people to come to the aid of our country, because we have got to reignite relational spirituality in our culture,” Miller said. “I don’t care what political party you’re from. You a child of God; you are a fellow sister or brother.”

“We’re going to finally, hopefully, find our way, if we work together into this new, after a plague, renaissance,” she said. “After a plague, a spiritual awakening.”

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