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Nuns go under the brain scanner

August 30, 2006 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Imaging study shows that godly experiences trigger a network within the brain.

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Neuroscientists have identified a network of brain regions activated when nuns feel that they are at one with God. Artificially stimulating the brain in this way, they say, might allow people to have mystical experiences without believing in God themselves.

Lead author Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, Canada, says that he wanted to know what was going on in the brain during spiritual, mystical or religious episodes because of his own personal experiences. During such moments, people feel that they are in union with God and feel peace, joy and love.

Beauregard and his colleague Vincent Paquette recruited 15 nuns from Carmelite monasteries, slid them into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked them to fully relive the most mystical moment in their lives. They didn't scan the subjects when actually praying, because the nuns told the researchers that they could not connect with God at will.

As a comparison, the nuns also relived an experience in which they felt at union with another person.

Light up my life

The researchers found a collection of brain areas that were more active during the recollected mystical experience than the emotional one, they report in Neuroscience Letters1. The caudate nucleus, for example, which is associated with positive feelings such as happiness and bliss, appeared more active during the mystical memories.

The team also saw particular activity in regions thought to integrate physical feelings from the rest of the body, which perhaps explains the perception that the nuns had become one with God and their surroundings. They also found an increase in certain types of electrical activity associated with deep sleep and meditation.

Earlier studies have suggested that such experiences might originate in one specific part of the brain. Work with epileptic patients who are intensely religious has suggested that the temporal cortex, dubbed the 'God spot' or 'God module', could be largely responsible for religious feeling. There has been controversy over experiments suggesting that stimulating the temporal lobes can induce spiritual experiences.

The new study also found activation in the temporal cortex, one of many regions that were involved. Beauregard says that this is what might be expected of a complicated emotional and cognitive experience.

It is possible that differences between the previous and current experiments might account for the differing results. For example, the new study analysed memories of mystical experiences rather than the actual moment.

The God switch

Beauregard says that it might be possible to use machines to mimic the type of brain activation the nuns experienced, and he wants to test whether this is possible. "It's feasible to bring people into such a state where the brain is receptive to such experiences." This might be used to mimic the health effects that some studies have linked to religion, he suggests.

Many theologians and people with religious beliefs would be opposed to such an idea because it suggests that religion can be reduced to a set of neurological events, says Richard Sloan, professor of behavioural medicine and an authority on religion and medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

"I don't know what useful information can be gleaned from this study," Sloan says. "Just because we have an advanced diagnostic technique doesn't mean we should use it on anything that comes to mind," he says.

Beauregard says that neuroscientists are keen to explore the brain activity that underlies spiritual experiences because such experiences are an important part of all cultures. The study cost US$100,000 and was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that pays for research into the relationship between science and religion.

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  1. Beauregard M.& Paquette V. Neuroscience Letters, 405. 186 - 190 (2006).


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