by David Biello
From the October 2007 issue of
Scientific American Mind
The doughnut-shaped machine swallows the
nun, who is outfitted in a plain T-shirt and loose hospital pants
rather than her usual brown habit and long veil. She wears earplugs
and rests her head on foam cushions to dampen the device’s roar, as
loud as a jet engine.
Supercooled giant magnets generate
intense fields around the nun’s head in a high-tech attempt to read
her mind as she communes with her deity.
Neural Correlates of
a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns, by M. Beauregard and V.
Letters, Vol. 405, No. 3; 2006.
permission of Elsevier
MYSTICAL HOT SPOTS:
In a 2006 study the
recall by nuns of communion with God
brain's caudate nucleus, insula, inferior parietal lobe (IPL)
orbitofrontal cortex (MOFC), among other brain regions.
The Carmelite nun and 14 of her Catholic
sisters have left their cloistered lives temporarily for this
claustrophobic blue tube that bears little resemblance to the wooden
prayer stall or sparse room where such mystical experiences usually
occur. Each of these nuns answered a call for volunteers “who have
had an experience of intense union with God ” and agreed to
participate in an experiment devised by neuroscientist Mario
Beauregard of the University of Montreal.
Using functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI), Beauregard seeks to pinpoint the brain
areas that are active while the nuns recall the most powerful
religious epiphany of their lives, a time they experienced a
profound connection with the divine.
The question: Is there a God
spot in the brain?
The spiritual quest may be as old as humankind itself, but now there
is a new place to look: inside our heads. Using fMRI and other tools
of modern neuroscience, researchers are attempting to pin down what
happens in the brain when people experience mystical awakenings
during prayer and meditation or during spontaneous utterances
inspired by religious fervor.
Such efforts to reveal the neural correlates of the divine—a new
discipline with the warring titles “neurotheology” and “spiritual
neuroscience”—not only might reconcile religion and science but also
might help point to ways of eliciting pleasurable otherworldly
feelings in people who do not have them or who cannot summon them at
will. Because of the positive effect of such experiences on those
who have them, some researchers speculate that the ability to induce
them artificially could transform people’s lives by making them
happier, healthier and better able to concentrate.
Ultimately, however, neuroscientists
study this question because they want to better understand the
neural basis of a phenomenon that plays a central role in the lives
of so many.
“These experiences have existed
since the dawn of humanity. They have been reported across all
cultures,” Beauregard says. “It is as important to study the
neural basis of [religious] experience as it is to investigate
the neural basis of emotion, memory or language.”
Scientists and scholars have long speculated that religious feeling
can be tied to a specific place in the brain. In 1892 textbooks on
mental illness noted a link between “religious emotionalism” and
epilepsy. Nearly a century later, in 1975, neurologist Norman Geschwind of the
Boston Veterans Administration Hospital first
clinically described a form of epilepsy in which seizures originate
as electrical misfirings within the temporal lobes, large sections
of the brain that sit over the ears.
Epileptics who have this form of the
disorder often report intense religious experiences, leading
Geschwind and others, such as neuropsychiatrist David Bear of
Vanderbilt University, to speculate that localized electrical storms
in the brain’s temporal lobe might sometimes underlie an obsession
with religious or moral issues.
Exploring this hypothesis, neuroscientist Vilayanur S.
Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, asked
several of his patients who have temporal lobe epilepsy to listen to
a mixture of religious, sexual and neutral words while he tested the
intensity of their emotional reactions using a measure of arousal
called the galvanic skin response, a fluctuation in the electrical
resistance of the skin.
In 1998 he reported in his book
Phantoms in the Brain, co-authored
with journalist Sandra Blakeslee, that the religious words,
such as “God,” elicited an unusually large emotional response in
these patients, indicating that people with temporal lobe epilepsy
may indeed have a greater propensity toward religious feeling.
The key, Ramachandran speculates, may be the limbic system, which
comprises interior regions of the brain that govern emotion and
emotional memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus. By
strengthening the connection between the temporal lobe and these
emotional centers, epileptic electrical activity may spark religious
To seal the case for the temporal lobe’s involvement, Michael
Persinger of Laurentian University in Ontario sought to
artificially re-create religious feelings by electrically
stimulating that large subdivision of the brain. So Persinger
created the “God helmet,” which generates weak electromagnetic
fields and focuses them on particular regions of the brain’s
In a series of studies conducted over the past several decades,
Persinger and his team have trained their device on the temporal
lobes of hundreds of people. In doing so, the researchers induced in
most of them the experience of a sensed presence—a feeling that
someone (or a spirit) is in the room when no one, in fact, is—or of
a profound state of cosmic bliss that reveals a universal truth.
During the three-minute bursts of stimulation, the affected subjects
translated this perception of the divine into their own cultural and
religious language — terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or
the wonder of the universe.
Persinger thus argues that religious experience and belief in God
are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain.
He opines that the religious bents of even the most exalted
figures—for instance, Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha — stem
from such neural quirks. The popular notion that such experiences
are good, argues Persinger in his book
Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs
(1987), is an outgrowth of psychological conditioning in which
religious rituals are paired with enjoyable experiences. Praying
before a meal, for example, links prayer with the pleasures of
God, he claims, is nothing more mystical
Although a 2005 attempt by Swedish scientists to replicate
Persinger’s God helmet findings failed, researchers are not yet
discounting the temporal lobe’s role in some types of religious
experience. After all, not all such experiences are the same. Some
arise from following a specific religious tradition, such as the
calm Catholics feel when saying the rosary.
Others bring a person into a perception
of contact with the divine. Yet a third category might be mystical
states that reveal fundamental truths opaque to normal
consciousness. Thus, it is possible that different religious
feelings arise from distinct locations in the brain. Individual
differences might also exist. In some people, the neural seat of
religious feeling may lie in the temporal lobe, whereas in others it
could reside elsewhere.
Indeed, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg
and his late colleague, Eugene d’Aquili, have pointed to the
involvement of other brain regions in some people under certain
circumstances. Instead of artificially inducing religious
experience, Newberg and d’Aquili used brain imaging to peek at the
neural machinery at work during traditional religious practices. In
this case, the scientists studied Buddhist meditation, a set of
formalized rituals aimed at achieving defined spiritual states, such
as oneness with the universe.
When the Buddhist subjects reached their self-reported meditation
peak, a state in which they lose their sense of existence as
separate individuals, the researchers injected them with a
radioactive isotope that is carried by the blood to active brain
areas. The investigators then photographed the isotope’s
distribution with a special camera—a technique called
single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT).
The height of this meditative trance, as they described in a 2001
paper, was associated with both a large drop in activity in a
portion of the parietal lobe, which encompasses the upper back of
the brain, and an increase in activity in the right prefrontal
cortex, which resides behind the forehead. Because the affected part
of the parietal lobe normally aids with navigation and spatial
orientation, the neuroscientists surmise that its abnormal silence
during meditation underlies the perceived dissolution of physical
boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe.
The prefrontal cortex, on the other
hand, is charged with attention and planning, among other cognitive
duties, and its recruitment at the meditation peak may reflect the
fact that such contemplation often requires that a person focus
intensely on a thought or object.
Neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson of the University of
Wisconsin–Madison and his colleagues documented something similar in
2002, when they used fMRI to scan the brains of several hundred
meditating Buddhists from around the world. Functional MRI tracks
the flow of oxygenated blood by virtue of its magnetic properties,
which differ from those of oxygen-depleted blood. Because oxygenated
blood preferentially flows to where it is in high demand, fMRI
highlights the brain areas that are most active during—and thus
presumably most engaged in—a particular task.
Davidson’s team also found that the Buddhists’ meditations coincided
with activation in the left prefrontal cortex, again perhaps
reflecting the ability of expert practitioners to focus despite
distraction. The most experienced volunteers showed lower levels of
activation than did those with less training, conceivably because
practice makes the task easier. This theory jibes with reports from
veterans of Buddhist meditation who claim to have reached a state of
“effortless concentration,” Davidson says.
What is more, Newberg and d’Aquili obtained concordant results in
2003, when they imaged the brains of Franciscan nuns as they prayed.
In this case, the pattern was associated with a different spiritual
phenomenon: a sense of closeness and mingling with God, as was
similarly described by Beauregard’s nuns.
“The more we study and compare the
neurological underpinnings of different religious practices, the
better we will understand these experiences,” Newberg says.
“We would like to [extend our work
by] recruiting individuals who engage in Islamic and Jewish
prayer as well as revisiting other Buddhist and Christian
Newberg and his colleagues discovered
yet another activity pattern when they scanned the brains of five
women while they were speaking in tongues—a spontaneous expression
of religious fervor in which people babble in an incomprehensible
language. The researchers announced in 2006 that the activity in
their subjects’ frontal lobes—the entire front section of the
brain—declined relative to that of five religious people who were
simply singing gospel.
Because the frontal lobes are broadly
used for self-control, the research team concluded that the
decrement in activity there enabled the loss of control necessary
for such garrulous outbursts.
Although release of frontal lobe control may be involved in the
mystical experience, Beauregard believes such profound states also
call on a wide range of other brain functions. To determine exactly
what might underlie such phenomena, the Quebecois neuroscientist and
his colleagues used fMRI to study the brains of 15 nuns during three
different mental states. Two of the conditions—resting with closed
eyes and recollecting an intense social experience—were control
states against which they compared the third: reminiscence or
revival of a vivid experience with God.
As each nun switched between these states on a technician’s cue, the
MRI machine recorded cross sections of her brain every three
seconds, capturing the whole brain roughly every two minutes. Once
the neural activity was computed and recorded, the experimenters
compared the activation patterns in the two control states with
those in the religious state to elucidate the brain areas that
became more energized during the mystical experience.
(Although Beauregard had hoped the nuns
would experience a mystical union while in the scanner, the best
they could do, it turned out, was to conjure up an emotionally
powerful memory of union with God. “God can’t be summoned at will,”
explained Sister Diane, the prioress of the Carmelite convent in
The researchers found six regions that were invigorated only during
the nuns’ recall of communion with God. The spiritual memory
was accompanied by, for example, increased activity in the caudate
nucleus, a small central brain region to which scientists have
ascribed a role in learning, memory and, recently, falling in love;
the neuroscientists surmise that its involvement may reflect the
nuns’ reported feeling of unconditional love. Another hot spot was
the insula, a prune-size chunk of tissue tucked within the brain’s
outermost layers that monitors body sensations and governs social
emotions. Neural sparks there could be related to the visceral
pleasurable feelings associated with connections to the divine.
And augmented activity in the inferior parietal lobe, with its role
in spatial awareness—paradoxically, the opposite of what Newberg and
Davidson witnessed—might mirror the nuns’ feeling of being absorbed
into something greater. Either too much or too little activity in
this region could, in theory, result in such a phenomenon, some
The remainder of the highlighted
regions, the researchers reported in the September 25, 2006, issue
of Neuroscience Letters, includes the medial orbitofrontal cortex,
which may weigh the pleasantness of an experience; the medial
prefrontal cortex, which may help govern conscious awareness of an
emotional state; and, finally, the middle of the temporal lobe.
The quantity and diversity of brain regions involved in the nuns’
religious experience point to the complexity of the phenomenon of
“There is no single God spot,
localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain,”
“These states are mediated by a
neural network that is well distributed throughout the brain.”
Brain scans alone cannot fully describe
a mystical state, however. Because fMRI depends on blood flow, which
takes place on the order of seconds, fMRI images do not capture
real-time changes in the firing of neurons, which occur within
That is why Beauregard turned to a
faster technique called quantitative electroencephalography (EEG),
which measures the voltage from the summed responses of millions of
neurons and can track its fluctuation in real time. His team
outfitted the nuns with red bathing caps studded with electrodes
that pick up electric currents from neurons. These currents merge
and appear as brain waves of various frequencies that change as the
nuns again recall an intense experience with another person and a
deep connection with God.
Beauregard and his colleagues found that the most prevalent brain
waves are long, slow alpha waves such as those produced by sleep,
consistent with the nuns’ relaxed state. In work that has not yet
been published, the scientists also spotted even lower-frequency
waves in the prefrontal and parietal cortices and the temporal lobe
that are associated with meditation and trance.
“We see delta waves and theta waves
in the same brain regions as the fMRI,” Beauregard says.
The brain mediates every human experience from breathing to
contemplating the existence of God. And whereas activity in neural
networks is what gives rise to these experiences, neuro-imaging
cannot yet pinpoint such activity at the level of individual
neurons. Instead it provides far cruder anatomical information,
highlighting the broad swaths of brain tissue that appear to be
unusually dynamic or dormant.
But using such vague structural clues to
explain human feelings and behaviors may be a fool’s errand.
“You list a bunch of places in the
brain as if naming something lets you understand it,” opines
neuropsychologist Seth Horowitz of Brown University.
Vincent Paquette, who
collaborated with Beauregard on his experiments, goes further,
likening neuro-imaging to phrenology, the practice in which
Victorian-era scientists tried—and ultimately failed—to intuit clues
about brain function and character traits from irregularities in the
shape of the skull.
Spiritual neuroscience studies also face the profound challenge of
language. No two mystics describe their experiences in the same way,
and it is difficult to distinguish among the various types of
mystical experiences, be they spiritual or traditionally religious.
To add to the ambiguity, such feelings could also encompass awe of
the universe or of nature.
“If you are an atheist and you live
a certain kind of experience, you will relate it to the
magnificence of the universe. If you are a Christian, you will
associate it with God. Who knows? Perhaps they are the same,”
Rather than attempting to define
religious experience to understand it, some say we should be boiling
it down to its essential components.
“When we talk about phenomena like a
mystical experience, we need to be a lot more specific about
what we are referring to as far as changes in attention, memory
and perception,” Davidson says.
“Our only hope is to specify what is
going on in each of those subsystems,” as has been done in
studies of cognition and emotion.
Other research problems abound. None of
the techniques, for example, can precisely delineate specific brain
regions. And it is virtually impossible to find a perfect so-called
reference task for the nuns to perform against which to compare the
religious experience they are trying to capture.
After all, what human experience is just
one detail different from the awe and love felt in the presence of God?
For the nuns, serenity does not come from a sense of God in their
brains but from an awareness of God with them in the world. It is
that peace and calm, that sense of union with all things, that
Beauregard wants to capture—and perhaps even replicate.
“If you know how to electrically or
neurochemically change functions in the brain,” he says, “then
you [might] in principle be able to help normal people, not
mystics, achieve spiritual states using a device that stimulates
the brain electromagnetically or using lights and sounds.”
Inducing truly mystical experiences
could have a variety of positive effects. Recent findings suggest,
for example, that meditation can improve people’s ability to pay
attention. Davidson and his colleagues asked 17 people who had
received three months of intensive training in meditation and 23
meditation novices to perform an attention task in which they had to
successively pick out two numbers embedded in a series of letters.
The novices did what most people do, the
investigators announced in June: they missed the second number
because they were still focusing on the first—a phenomenon called
attentional blink. In contrast, all the trained meditators
consistently picked out both numbers, indicating that practicing
meditation can improve focus.
Meditation may even delay certain signs of aging in the brain,
according to preliminary work by neuroscientist Sara Lazar of
Harvard University and her colleagues. A 2005 paper in
NeuroReport noted that 20 experienced meditators showed
increased thickness in certain brain regions relative to 15 subjects
who did not meditate. In particular, the prefrontal cortex and right
anterior insula were between four and eight thousandths of an inch
thicker in the meditators; the oldest of these subjects boasted the
greatest increase in thickness, the reverse of the usual process of
Newberg is now investigating whether meditation can
alleviate stress and sadness in cancer patients or expand the
cognitive capacities of people with early memory loss.
Artificially replicating meditative trances or other spiritual
states might be similarly beneficial to the mind, brain and body.
Beauregard and others argue, for example, that such mystical mimicry
might improve immune system function, stamp out depression or just
provide a more positive outlook on life.
The changes could be
lasting and even transformative.
“We could generate a healthy,
optimal brain template,” Paquette says. “If someone has a bad
brain, how can they get a good brain? It’s really [a potential
way to] rewire our brain.”
Religious faith also has inherent
worldly rewards, of course. It brings contentment, and charitable
works motivated by such faith bring others happiness.
To be sure, people may differ in their proclivity to spiritual
awakening. After all, not everyone finds God with the God
Thus, scientists may need to retrofit the technique to the patient.
And it is possible that some people’s brains will simply resist
succumbing to the divine.
Moreover, no matter what neural correlates scientists may find, the
results cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Although
atheists might argue that finding spirituality in the brain implies
that religion is nothing more than divine delusion, the nuns were
thrilled by their brain scans for precisely the opposite reason:
they seemed to provide confirmation of God’s interactions with them.
After all, finding a cerebral source for
spiritual experiences could serve equally well to identify the
medium through which God reaches out to humanity. Thus, the nuns’
forays into the tubular brain scanner did not undermine their faith.
On the contrary, the science gave them
an even greater reason to believe.