SEARCHING FOR GOD IN THE BRAIN by David Biello Researchers are unearthing the roots of religious feeling in the neural commotion that accompanies the spiritual epiphanies of nuns, Buddhists and other people 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? ...
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Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Researching the Mystic
Scientists have long felt that religious feelings occur somewhere in the brain. Some have even speculated that these feelings can be traced to a specific place in the gray matter between our ears, but there has been little agreement on where exactly this place might be. Scientific American magazine reports this month on the latest attempts to map the neurological landscape of religious experience. Through the use of MRIs and brain scans, 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." As an individual who performs a technical job, I can understand the desire to find the "God(s) spot" in the human brain. And as an exercise in better understanding human behavior and development, I can support such research. But I also walk the narrow line between the empirical and the ineffable. I firmly believe there is a spiritual dimension to human life. Andean mystics, for example, believe that all humans have a metaphysical body in addition to the physical. The metaphysical body mimics the physical, yet this "other" body is tied to energy in the way that the physical body is tied to food items. The spiritual stomach eats and processes forms of energy, instead of physical food, breaking it down for other spiritual entities to devour in a way that echoes our physical digestive system. So is there truly this direct a correlation between the spiritual realm and our physical anatomy? I don't know. But while I am interested in research that measures brain waves and records bio-electrical impulses during meditation, I do have my concerns. I am concerned that the actual intent that drives such research is a desire to prove that religious experience is no more real than a chemically fueled hallucination. If that is the case here, then there are no winners.