Researchers Investigate Links Between Spirituality and the Brain
W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 14 -- Believers from every tradition and around the world have reported similar sensations of religious experience — a feeling of completeness, absence of self, or oneness with the universe, feelings of peace, freedom from fear, ecstatic joy, visions of a Supreme Being.
With the aid of new technology that allows them to watch the brain in action, a group of scientists — sometimes described as "neurotheologists" — have tried to explain how such experiences occur and perhaps even why.
"There are certain [brain] patterns that can be generated experimentally that will generate the sense, presence and the feeling of God-like experiences," says professor of Neuroscience Michael Persinger of Ontario's Laurentia University. "The patterns we use are complex but they imitate what the brain does normally."
Persinger originally set out to explore the nature of creativity and sense of self. But his research into patterns of brain activity led him to delve into the nature of mystical experiences as well.
To do this Persinger puts his subjects in a quiet room, depriving them of light and sound, so that the nerve cells typically involved in seeing and hearing are not stimulated. Then he applies a magnetic field pattern over the right hemisphere of the brain.
Persinger was asked if his work leads him to conclude that "God," or the experience of God, is solely the creation of brain-wave activity.
"My point of view is, 'Let's measure it.' Let's keep an open mind and realize maybe there is no God; maybe there might be," says Persinger. "We're not going to answer it by arguments — we're going to answer it by measurement and understanding the areas of the brain that generate the experience and the patterns that experimentally produce it in the laboratory."
Mind, Body and Belief
To others who have thought deeply about religion, that is a conclusion that far outstrips the evidence — a scientific leap of faith, if you will.
"They have isolated one small aspect of religious experience and they are identifying that with the whole of religion," says John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University.