Researchers are unearthing the roots of religious feeling in the neural commotion that accompanies the spiritual epiphanies of nuns, Buddhists and other people of faith. In Scientific American: Searching for God in the Brain, David Biello, writes about scanning 14 Carmelite nuns to see what prayer looks like on a functional MRI brain scan.
Such efforts to reveal the neural correlates of the divine–a new discipline with the warring titles “neurotheology” and “spiritual neuroscience”not only might reconcile religion and science but also might help point to ways of eliciting pleasurable otherworldly feelings in people who do not have them or who cannot summon them at will. Because of the positive effect of such experiences on those who have them, some researchers speculate that the ability to induce them artificially could transform people’s lives by making them happier, healthier and better able to concentrate. Ultimately, however, neuroscientists study this question because they want to better understand the neural basis of a phenomenon that plays a central role in the lives of so many. “These experiences have existed since the dawn of humanity. They have been reported across all cultures,” Beauregard says. It is as important to study the neural basis of [religious] experience as it is to investigate the neural basis of emotion, memory or language.”