Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | ‘God spot’ researchers see the light in MRI study
Brain scans of nuns have revealed intricate neural circuits that flicker into life when they feel the presence of God.
The images suggest that feelings of profound joy and union with a higher being that accompany religious experiences are the culmination of ramped-up electrical activity in parts of the brain.
The scans were taken as nuns relived intense religious experiences. They showed a surge in neural activity in regions of the brain that govern feelings of peace, happiness and self-awareness. Psychologists at the University of Montreal say the research, which appears in the journal Neuroscience Letters, was not intended to confirm or deny the existence of God, but set out to examine how the brain behaves during profound religious experiences.
Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of 15 Carmelite nuns who were asked to remember the most intense mystical experience they had ever had.
When the scans were compared with others taken beforehand, the scientists found electrical activity and blood oxygen levels had surged in at least 12 regions of the brain. Some regions, such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex, are strongly associated with emotions, while activity in the right middle temporal cortex is believed to be responsible for the impression of contacting a spiritual entity. The scans showed different brain activity from those taken when the nuns were asked to remember intense emotional experiences that involved another person.
The findings contradict previous suggestions that human brains may have evolved with a “God spot” – a single region that lights up in response to deeply religious thoughts. “Rather than there being one spot that relates to mystical experiences, we’ve found a number of brain regions are involved,” said Dr Beauregard.