Friday, August 04, 2006

Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns

The title of this article by Beauregard and Paquette is a little misleading, because "God can’t be summoned at will."
Beauregard M, Paquette V. (2006). Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neurosci Lett. Jul 25; [Epub ahead of print]

The main goal of this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study was to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience. The brain activity of Carmelite nuns was measured while they were subjectively in a state of union with God. This state was associated with significant loci of activation in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem. Other loci of activation were seen in the extra-striate visual cortex. These results suggest that mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems.

Keywords: Carmelite nuns; Mystical state; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Temporal lobes; Prefrontal cortex; Parietal cortex; Spiritual neuroscience
The activation conditions compared in the figure above are the Mystical condition, in which subjects were asked to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of the Carmelite Order vs. the Baseline condition, which was the "resting state" with eyes closed.
Mystical experience is characterized by a sense of union with God. It can also include a number of other elements, such as the sense of having touched the ultimate ground of reality, the experience of timelessness and spacelessness, the sense of union with humankind and the universe, as well as feelings of positive affect, peace, joy and unconditional love.
However, the experiment did not involve direct induction of a "mystical experience," but rather a memory of one. Importantly, the Control condition asked the nuns to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense state of union with another human ever felt in their lives while being affiliated with the Carmelite Order. So the important contrast is "remember union with God" (Mystical) vs. "remember union with human" (Control). Here's the list of brain areas more active in the former:

R MOFC - medial orbitofrontal cortex
L IPL - inferior parietal lobule
R MTC - middle temporal cortex
L SPL - superior parietal lobule
R MPFC - medial prefrontal cortex
R ACC - anterior cingulate cortex

However, the Carmelites are cloistered -- cut off from contact with the outside world. They're not close to any other humans (except for fellow nuns), and by definition
a Carmelite has given her life totally to Jesus Christ. She desires to follow Him and belong to Him completely.
[BTW, check out the flashy Carmelite Web Site]

Nonetheless, the brain regions activated by both Mystical and Control conditions (each compared to Baseline) were right superior parietal lobule, left caudate, left ACC, and left brainstem. Interestingly,
The average intensity of the subjective experience was 3.06 ± 0.93 (range: 2–5) during the Mystical condition and 3.04 ± 0.80 (range: 2–5) during the Control condition.
After the scan, the nuns rated the intensity of the subjective experience during the Control and Mystical conditions using a rating scale ranging from 0 (no experience of union) to 5 (most intense experience of union ever felt). This was a rating of how they actually felt during the scan, not how they felt during the original episode (recalled to elicit the Control and Mystical states). So during the scan, the nuns felt equally intense about remembering "union with God" and "union with human." During the Mystical condition, the nuns reported feeling the presence of God, unconditional and infinite love, plenitude, and peace. They also reported feeling unconditional love during the Control condition.

Also interestingly, the caudate and ACC regions activated in both these conditions (and hence subtracted away in the direct comparison between them) are ALSO quite active when an amorous lover views a photo of his/her romantic partner (Bartels & Zeki, 2000; Aron et al., 2005; Fisher et al., 2005). BUT it's not up to me to engage in reverse inference1 here...

1 inferring the participants' emotional state from the observed pattern of brain activity.


Aron A, Fisher H, Mashek DJ, Strong G, Li H, Brown LL. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. J Neurophysiol. 94:327-37.

Bartels A, Zeki S. (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport 11:3829-34.

Fisher H, Aron A, Brown LL. (2005) Romantic love: an fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. J Comp Neurol. 493:58-62.

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At August 06, 2006 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>The title of this article by Beauregard and Paquette is a little misleading, because "God can’t be summoned at will."

My friend was saying it's actually a function of dosage. - V

At August 07, 2006 10:34 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

My friend was saying it's actually a function of dosage.

That's an interesting perspective. I wonder if one could do a dose-response study...

At August 15, 2006 8:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BUT it's not up to me to engage in reverse inference here...

Why not? they do that in all of the best journals, these days. I swear, neurocritic, you can be so boring sometimes. :-)

At August 16, 2006 10:02 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Boring? Well then, I shall submit my hypothesis to The Journal of Reverse Inference AND The Journal of Ecstatic Religious Studies...

At August 25, 2006 1:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you think the movie the Matrix was cool you probably can't wait for the drug that simulates the reality of Carmel.

Better living through neural stims.

At August 25, 2006 6:33 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

How about ayahuasca?

At November 17, 2006 2:04 PM, Blogger Jeremy Clark said...

In response to the Mystical versus Control recollections, I think another point is important to make. The test subjects are Carmelites, which means they are celibate. Therefore, given the definition of the control (union with human while affiliated with the order), it will exclude any sexual experiences.

I would suspect that the closest naturalistic experience to mysticism would be sexual. I have no data to back this up--it is a mere hypothesis tested. But one neither verified nor falsified by this particular experiment.

At December 03, 2006 6:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, the mystical state cannot be manufactured at our whim. So, the researchers worked on memory which is a different animal from the actual. I am not sure what that is supposed to tell us. Is this relavant? It is not a God-induced state which is what we really want to see. But it does have its interesting point. Also, the web site you linked was for O.Carms. Their nuns are not cloistered. That is the other branch, Discalced Carmelites. I am certain that was the branch of Carmelite nuns studied in this research.

At December 03, 2006 10:35 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for the clarification on Carmelite orders, Anonymous. I did think their website was a little outward-looking...

PulpSpy - yes, I was making the sexual/mystical union comparison, even though the nuns are celibate. I would imagine it's very difficult to eradicate all traces of sexual desire. Such a discussion is a taboo topic, especially regarding Catholic nuns.



At August 20, 2011 12:33 PM, Blogger Eris Dulig said...

Mystical states are what is called 'state-specific'. In other words, one can not recreate the mental state by memory any more than one can be drunk by remembering a time when they actually were drunk. There has been much criticism of the arguably pseudoscientific or unscientific conclusions that Beauregard has drawn from his already highly questionable neuroimaging experiments. Indeed, his book "The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul" (co-authored by Denyse O'Leary) seems to lack sound logic and ignores basic scientific reasoning with an unvalidated anti-materialist bias. Both his experimental set-up and his book seem to defeat his argument.


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