Is God in Your Brain?


Is God in your brain? Or, to put it in different terms, is an intense religious experience merely a neurological phenomenon? Could one artificially induce a spiritual event by stimulating specific areas of the brain? While we aren’t at the point where we can flip a switch to get godly, intriguing new research has identified some of the neurological characteristics of a religious experience. A group of nuns were studied using an fMRI machine as they relived their most religious experience in order to identify the areas of the brain which experienced more activity.

Nature reports in Nuns go under the brain scanner that a team led by Mario Beauregard and V. Paquette at the University of Montreal recruited 15 Carmelite nuns to undergo the scan process. Rather than being asked to pray, which the nuns reported didn’t always lead to an intense spiritual experience, they were asked to fully relive the most mystical moment in their lives.

Perhaps thankfully for religiously-oriented people, no single brain area stood out as the center of spiritual activity. Earlier research suggested that the temporal cortex might be the “God spot” in the brain and the origin of religious feelings.

The researchers found a collection of brain areas that were more active during the recollected mystical experience than the emotional one, they report in Neuroscience Letters. The caudate nucleus, for example, which is associated with positive feelings such as happiness and bliss, appeared more active during the mystical memories. The team also saw particular activity in regions thought to integrate physical feelings from the rest of the body, which perhaps explains the perception that the nuns had become one with God and their surroundings. They also found an increase in certain types of electrical activity associated with deep sleep and meditation.

…The new study also found activation in the temporal cortex, one of many regions that were involved. Beauregard says that this is what might be expected of a complicated emotional and cognitive experience.

There’s some interest in being able to artificially create a spiritual experience in individuals, as some health benefits seem to accrue. The article doesn’t mention it, but such an experience might be desirable on its own merits, even by non-religious people. The ethical considerations here could be interesting if research leads to a means to stimulate a spiritual, or pseudo-spiritual experience. Due to the complexity of the experience, though, it looks like the “God button” will be at least as elusive as the mythical “buy button.”

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