News Stories

God in the Brain

Researcher Mario Beauregard is studying where in the brain religious feelings are actually experienced by placing electrodes on the scalps of seven nuns in order to record the electrical activity in their brains as they recall a spiritual experience. Before they would allow him to do this, Beauregard had to convince the nuns that he was not trying to disprove the existence of God.

The nuns all say they had a religious experience while they were in their 20s that caused them to choose their vocation. Previous experiments have shown that remembering an intense emotional experience activates the same brain networks as actually having that experience.

The Economist reports that Olaf Blanke, who has studied how the brain generates out-of-body experiences, says he has identified the brain mechanisms responsible for this, as well as for amputees' illusions of "phantom limbs." He imaged the brains of six brain-damaged patients and found that damage at the junction of two lobes of the brain causes a breakdown of a person's perception of his own body, causing the boundary between personal and extrapersonal space to become blurred. Temporal lobe epilepsy can produce the same result. He thinks that some people give this a mystical interpretation.

Radiologist Andrew Newberg, who scanned the brains of Buddhists and Franciscan nuns while they were meditating or praying, says, "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."

At the end of each session, Beauregard asks the nuns to complete a questionnaire which reveals their feelings of love and closeness to God, as well as any distortions they experienced of time and space. "The more intense the experience, the more intense the disorganization from a spatio-temporal point of view," he says. The nuns describe time slowing down, and the self dissolving into a larger entity that they describe as God.

Does this mean that God is all in the brain?or merely that we use a specific part of our brain in order to experience God?

Spiritual transformation, which involves interpreting the world in a new way, is available to contemporary people through their iPods and Walkmans, which researcher Michael Bull calls "transformative devices" with which "users manage space, time and the boundaries around the self."

Mark Ward writes in bbcnews.com that scientists who study how people behave in public usually only pay attention to what people see, not what they're listening to. "There's the visual domination of explaining urban experience," Bull says, "but if you look at it through sound you get different explanations."

Through interviews with Walkman and iPod users, he found that listening to music acts as a shield, or a cocoon, that helps people reclaim their personal space and interpret the events happening around them differently from people who are not listening?or who are listening to different tunes. He says, "They construct their moods, they re-make the time of their day. It's a much more active process even though it's dependent on the machinery."

Should we believe what other people tell us about the Bible or should we search out the truth for ourselves?

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