Posted by David Pescovitz
The current issue of Scientific America Mind looks at how neuroscientists are using brain scans to study the biology of spiritual experiences. The fMRI images seen here are from a study by University of Montreal researcher Mario Beauregard and his colleagues. The scientists scanned the brains of nuns as they recalled religious epiphanies to see which areas of the brain lit up.
From Scientific American Mind:
Such efforts to reveal the neural correlates of the divine—a new discipline with the warring titles “neurotheology” and “spiritual neuroscience”—not only might reconcile religion and science but also might help point to ways of eliciting pleasurable otherworldly feelings in people who do not have them or who cannot summon them at will. Because of the positive effect of such experiences on those who have them, some researchers speculate that the ability to induce them artificially could transform people’s lives by making them happier, healthier and better able to concentrate. Ultimately, however, neuroscientists study this question because they want to better understand the neural basis of a phenomenon that plays a central role in the lives of so many. “These experiences have existed since the dawn of humanity. They have been reported across all cultures,” Beauregard says. “It is as important to study the neural basis of [religious] experience as it is to investigate the neural basis of emotion, memory or language.”
Scientists and scholars have long speculated that religious feeling can be tied to a specific place in the brain. In 1892 textbooks on mental illness noted a link between “religious emotionalism” and epilepsy. Nearly a century later, in 1975, neurologist Norman Geschwind of the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital first clinically described a form of epilepsy in which seizures originate as electrical misfirings within the temporal lobes, large sections of the brain that sit over the ears. Epileptics who have this form of the disorder often report intense religious experiences, leading Geschwind and others, such as neuropsychiatrist David Bear of Vanderbilt University, to speculate that localized electrical storms in the brain’s temporal lobe might sometimes underlie an obsession with religious or moral issues.