Does religious belief have origins in neuroscience? Can we pinpoint the location of a mystical experience? Using the tools of modern neuroscience, several scientists are attempting to explore the biological origins of faith:
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.
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.”
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