Spiritual neurology - A mystical union
- 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 experiencethe 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
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 Mysticathe 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 reductionistof 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 allmerely an intense
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 brainthe temporal and
parietalcauses 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 seenthough 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.