No "God spot" for nuns, researchers show

There is no specific area of the brain that mediates Christian mystical experiences, researchers say, following a study of 15 Canadian nuns.

A University of Montreal team found Christian mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions.

Researchers asked 15 nuns to recount mystical experiences while studying them on MRI scanners, the journal, Neuroscience Letters reported.

There has been much debate about how the brain reacts during connections with God among religious followers.

Nuns are said to experience Unio Mystica - the Christian notion of a mystical union with God - during their 20s.

Researchers asked the nuns aged 23 to 64-years-old to recount such mystical experiences and measured their brain activity through MRI scans.

"I was obliged to do it this way, seeing as the nuns are unable to call upon God at will," Dr Mario Beauregard of the Department of Psychology, said in a prepared statement.

They found increased activity in at least 12 regions of the brain, including areas normally involved with self-consciousness and emotion.

"The main goal of the study was to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience," lead researcher Dr Beauregard said.

"Rather than there being one spot that relates to mystical experiences, we've found a number of brain regions are involved.

"This does not diminish the meaning and value of such an experience and neither does it confirm or disconfirm the existence of God."

Commenting on the findings, Forbes quotes Fr Stephen Wang, a Catholic priest teaching at Allen Hall Seminary in London, who said: "These brain studies can give us fascinating insights into how the human body and mind and spirit inter-connect, but they should not make us think that prayer and religious experience are just an activity in the brain.

"True Christian mysticism is an encounter with the living God. We meet him in the depths of our souls.

"It is an experience that goes far beyond the normal boundaries of human psychology and consciousness."

Nun Study Counters Notion of 'God Spot' in Brain (Forbes, 30/8/06)
Doubt cast over brain 'God spot' (BBC News, 30/8/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Laboratory for Neuroscience of Consciousness and Emotions, University of Montreal (French)
Centre de recherche en neuropsychologie et cognition

31 Aug 2006