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Spiritual neurology - A mystical union

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  • medit8ionsociety
    From Economist.com http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=2478148 A small band of pioneers is exploring the neurology of religious
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 8, 2004
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      From Economist.com

      A small band of pioneers is exploring the neurology of religious

      The renowned French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot once scribbled
      some notes while under the influence of the psychedelic drug
      mescaline. Colleagues were puzzled because among the scribbles was the
      incongruous statement, written in English, "I love you Jennifer".
      Still more puzzling was the question: who was Jennifer? That was not
      the name of his wife nor of anyone else they thought he knew. Despite
      the mystery, Dr Charcot's colleagues never thought to question the
      scientific value of the experiment.
      The same cannot be said of Mario Beauregard, a brain-imager from the
      University of Montreal, who has also experimented with mescaline. But
      that is because Dr Beauregard is interested in one particular, and far
      more contentious, aspect of the mescaline experience—the capacity of
      the drug to inspire feelings of spirituality or closeness to God. It
      was experiments of the type carried out by Charcot that opened up the
      possibility of investigating spirituality in a scientific manner, by
      showing that it could be manipulated. Dr Beauregard is following up on
      these by trying to discover where in the brain religious experience is
      actually experienced.
      In the first of what he hopes will be a series of experiments, Dr
      Beauregard and his doctoral student Vincent Paquette are recording
      electrical activity in the brains of seven Carmelite nuns through
      electrodes attached to their scalps. Their aim is to identify the
      brain processes underlying the Unio Mystica—the Christian notion of
      mystical union with God. The nuns (the researchers hope to recruit 15
      in all) will also have their brains scanned using positron-emission
      tomography and functional magnetic-resonance imaging, the most
      powerful brain-imaging tools available.
      The study has met with scepticism from both subjects and scientists.
      Dr Beauregard had first to convince the nuns that he was not trying to
      prove or disprove the existence of God. Scientific critics, meanwhile,
      have accused him of being too reductionist—of pretending to pinpoint
      the soul in the brain in the same way that the Victorians played
      phrenology as a parlour game by feeling the contours of each others'
      skulls to find a bulge of secretiveness or a missing patch of generosity.
      Dr Beauregard does not, in fact, believe there is a neurological "God
      centre". Rather, his preliminary data implicate a network of brain
      regions in the Unio Mystica, including those associated with emotion
      processing and the spatial representation of self. But that leads to
      another criticism, which he may find harder to rebut. This is that he
      is not really measuring a mystical experience at all—merely an intense
      emotional one.
      This is because the nuns are, so to speak, faking it. They believe
      that the Unio Mystica is a gift of God and cannot be summoned at will.
      Most of them have only experienced it once or twice, typically in
      their 20s. To get around this, Dr Beauregard has drawn on previous
      experiments he carried out with actors, which showed that remembering
      an intense emotional experience activates the same brain networks as
      actually having that experience. In effect, he has asked the nuns to
      method act, and they are happy to comply.

      God and the gaps
      Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the Hospital of the University of
      Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who has scanned the brains of Buddhists
      and Franciscan nuns in meditation or at prayer, is familiar with such
      criticism. He says that, because religious experience is not readily
      accessible, unusually high standards of experimental rigour are
      demanded of this kind of research. "We have frequently argued that
      many aspects of spiritual experiences are built upon the brain
      machinery that is used for other purposes such as emotions," he says.
      "Very careful research will need to be done to delineate these issues."
      But that is not a reason for shying away from them, says Olaf Blanke
      of the University Hospital of Geneva, Switzerland, whose paper in the
      February edition of Brain describes how the brain generates
      out-of-body experiences. He points out that plenty of research has
      been done into another kind of bodily illusion, phantom limbs. This
      has identified the brain mechanisms responsible, and even suggested
      treatments for these disabling "appendages". The same cannot be said
      of out-of-body experiences, which can also be disturbing, but occupy a
      neglected position between neurobiology and mysticism.
      Having subjected six brain-damaged patients to a battery of
      neuro-imaging techniques, Dr Blanke's group concludes that damage at
      the junction of two lobes of the brain—the temporal and
      parietal—causes a breakdown of a person's perception of his own body.
      The boundary between personal and extrapersonal space becomes blurred,
      and he sees his body occupying positions that do not coincide with the
      position he feels it to be in.
      Some patients give this a mystical interpretation, some do not. What
      is interesting is that several of the patients suffered from
      temporal-lobe epilepsy. An association between this kind of epilepsy
      and religiosity is well-documented, notably in a classic series of
      neurological papers written by Norman Geschwind in the 1960s and
      1970s. Dr Blanke argues that all the lobes of the brain play a part in
      something as complex as religious experience, but that the
      temporo-parietal junction is a prime node of that network.
      The parietal lobe is thought to be responsible for orienting a person
      in time and space, and Dr Newberg also found a change in parietal
      activation at the height of the meditative experience, when his
      volunteers reported sensing a greater interconnectedness of things. At
      the end of each recording session, Dr Beauregard asks the nuns to
      complete a questionnaire which gauges not only feelings of love and
      closeness to God, but also distortions of time and space. "The more
      intense the experience, the more intense the disorganisation from a
      spatio-temporal point of view," he says. Typically, time slows down,
      and the self appears to dissolve into some larger entity that the nuns
      describe as God.
      Whether the Unio Mystica has anything in common with out-of-body
      experiences, or even phantom limbs, remains to be seen—though all are
      certainly mediated by the brain. According to Dr Blanke, this is only
      just starting to become an accepted topic of research in neuroscience.
      Perhaps its acceptance will depend ultimately on how the knowledge is
      used. Dr Beauregard may have done himself a disservice by arguing that
      mystical union should not be reserved for the spiritual few, but
      should be made available to everyone, for the benefit of society.
      Perhaps, like Charcot, he should stick to describing it, however
      incongruous the result may be.
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