The human brain does not contain a single "God spot" responsible for mystical and religious experiences, a new study finds.
Instead, the sense of union with God or something greater than the self often described by those who have undergone such experiences involves the recruitment and activation of a variety brain regions normally implicated in different functions such as self-consciousness, emotion and body representation.
The finding, detailed in the current issue of Neuroscience Letters, contradicts previous suggestions by other researchers that the there might be a specific region in the brain designed for communication with God.
What it means
"The main goal of the study was to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience," said study leader Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal in Canada. "This does not diminish the meaning and value of such an experience, and neither does it confirm or disconfirm the existence of God."
In the study, 15 cloistered Carmelite nuns, ranging in age from 23 to 64, had their brains scanned while asked to relive the most intense mystical experience they had ever had as members of the religious order.
The nuns were not asked to try and actually achieve a state of spiritual union with God during the experiment because, as the nuns put it, "God cannot be summoned at will."
Joy and love
Nevertheless, the researchers believe their method was justified because previous studies have shown that actors asked to enter a particular state activated the same brain regions as people actually experiencing those emotions.
As a control, the nuns were instructed to relive the most intense state of union with another human ever felt in their lives while in the Carmelite order.
The study found that mystical experiences activate more than a dozen different areas of the brain at once. One of the regions, called the caudate nucleus, has been implicated in positive emotions such as happiness, romantic love and maternal love.
The researchers speculate that activation of this brain region during mystical experiences is related to the feelings of joy and unconditional love the nuns described.