A small band of pioneers is exploring the neurology of religious experience
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 allómerely 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.