Can an MRI See God?

Neuroscience and the mystery of religious experience


| October 11, 2007


Traditional neuroscience holds that the whole of our consciousnesses -- from the feelings of fondest love to the taste of a tart green apple -- amounts to nothing more than a series of neurons firing in the folds of our brains. But can deeply religious and mystical experiences really be reduced to biological hiccups in the machinery of the brain? Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, doesn't think so. In a piece for Conscious Choice , Beauregard recounts how he tried to better understand the mystic fringes of consciousness by putting Carmelite nuns into an MRI and having them recall the feeling of being close to God. In a detailed report on the experiment, Scientific American Mind explains that the same six areas of the brain kept lighting up on the MRI scans, suggesting that the nuns' mystic visions were a very real, very specific kind of experience.

Beauregard writes that his research indicates that people in the throes of spiritual feeling might "contact a reality outside [themselves]." He hopes to show that consciousness is not just the result of a complicated dance of electrons and biological chemicals. Something more is going on, he contends: a soul, perhaps.

Beauregard's experiment, as the Scientific American Mind notes, is similar to one conducted on practitioners of Buddhist meditation. At the height of meditation, neuroscientists discovered that the brain's parietal lobe -- the part responsible for navigation and spatial orientation -- ground to a halt, making practitioners experience a "perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe." Another experiment discovered that meditating Buddhist monks experienced unusual activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with attention.

While such experiments seem to juxtapose two fundamentally different worldviews, Buddhism and neuroscience are surprisingly similar, Dean Nelson writes in a Science & Spirit piece reprinted in the May/June 2006 issue of Utne Reader. Indeed, you can think of neuroscience as accepting Buddha's four noble truths: suffering exists, there's a reason for our suffering, an end to our suffering, and a path to end our suffering. The only big difference is that neuroscience looks at the brain from the outside, while Buddhism peers from the inside. Neuroscience attempts to block the inputs that lead to suffering, either by avoiding harmful experience or by tweaking a person's brain chemistry. But Buddhism seeks to escape suffering by recalibrating our response to suffering. While one project might advocate Prozac and the other compassionate meditation, they might just be different ways of answering the same questions.



Go there >> The Neuroscience of Consciousness

Go there, too >> Searching For God In The Brain














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