Can God be found with an fMRI scanner?

tower of babel

The Tower of Babel: Can mankind really use its finite knowledge and ability to discover God?

Is there a God or not? It’s a question that a lot of people wonder about, and also a question that evokes controversy. The early generations of the old testament (the origin of all three major monotheism’s) built the tower of Babel, to try to get to heaven and find God. Now they’re trying it again, but with an fMRI scanner.

Joking aside, here I am examining research which intended to identify the neural correlates of spiritual activity in Carmelite nuns (Beauregard & Paquette, 2006). The proposal was that the memory of an activity in which the subject was “at one” with another person and the memory of a time when the subject was “at one” with God, would identify different areas of the brain involved in these respective activities.

A repeated measures experiment involved these nuns reliving different memories, and then having brain activity recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning. The study uses the core assumptions of the biological perspective, that if activity takes place in the brain, some type of processing is taking place, which can be correlated to behaviors.

It is the variables of this study which I question.When studying matters over which we have more grasp, purely physical affairs, we can draw conclusions regarding neural correlates. However when studying God, a being of whom science itself has little understanding of, how can we use mapping of neural correlates, to study communication with an entity to whom we know little (and quite possibly nothing) about?

If we are to identify the neural correlates of a religous, spiritual or mystical experience, one of the variables of the experiment must be whether or not there is a religious, spiritual or mystical power with whom to communicate. Without controlling this variable, there are too many assumptions.

The researchers state both that these activations within the brain may reflect the “impression that something greater than the subjects seemed to absorb them” yet also that the “external reality of God [cannot] be confirmed or disconfirmed” by identifying these neural correlates.

Therefore, the claims that these areas of the brain “mediate” spiritual experiences, are not supported by the neural correlates of just the recall of a memory. Additionally, brain activity (the dependent variable) was measured over recall of a memory. Measuring the brain activity when a recalling a memory, can only measure with certainly the brain activation for recall of that memory. It does not imply causation; that these are the neural correlates for a mystical experience.

Last of all, to examine how these findings were portrayed by the media. The Telegraph published them with the headline “Nuns prove God is not figment of the mind” (Highfield, 2006). This statement portrays an opinion related to the research, but not the actual conclusion drawn. Neural correlates were established, but some may feel just in drawing the opposite conclusion. Statements were used to support the writers opinion, which were not put forward by the original research, and that carry the conclusions drawn by the original researchers to the reader in a misleading manor.


Beauregard, M., & Paquette, V. (2006) Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters, 405, 186-190.

Highfield, R. (2006, August 30). Nuns prove God is not figment of the mind. The Telegraph.

Please note: As the writier, I would like to make it known that I do have a firm belief in God which is precious to me. I believe in an objective truth, and that in areas of perfect understanding, science and religion are synonymous.


Was it Freud?

Today I speak of the Psychodynamic approach to psychology. It may not be regarded as empirical, the idea of subconscious drives and the like, but when I hear that being said, I can’t help but feel it has something to it. Do you have full control over your thoughts? Has anything ever ‘just’ popped in to your mind that you did not at all summon? There is definately something beyond our consciousness that has a say in the content of our minds.

So, along came Freud back at the turn of the 19th century, and made some sensational suggestions, to which science gave a tolerant smile before moving on to behaviorism, the cognitive approach and others. But recently, a new approach has been constructed towards these psycho dynamic principles.

The origins of this approach come from Bowlby and Ainsworth, who suggest that instead of subconscious drives, perhaps for food or sex, which become satisfied from contact with the mother, the bonding known as attachment theory, comes from the needs of protection and security (Fonaby, as cited by Shaver & Mikulincer, 2005).

A recent study used modern methods to carry out psychodynamic research, using methods of subliminal unconscious priming, followed by tests in which participants had to discern whether a string of characters formed a word or not, where reaction time was measured. This test found that proximity related words were discerned with a faster reaction time (suggesting higher accessibility) (Mikulincer, Birnbaum, Woddis & Nachmias, 2000, as cited by Shaver & Mikulincer, 2005).

Another method employed to study accessibility, used either a lexical task, or a Stroop colour-naming task, during which a subliminal threat or neural prime was presented. The ability to recall names of people whom participants considered as providing security were recalled quicker during this time (Mikulincer, 2002, as cited by Shaver & Mikulincer, 2005).

Both of these studies suggest the workings of a subconscious thought, and provide evidence in a useful light. Admittedly, the results are by some means vague. At most, they suggest the presence of subconscious activity, and point us in the direction of some of its applications. A report by Shaver and Mikulincer (2005) does say that much of the psychodynamic work is still done through careful and strategic introspection.

I heard it said that if we could develop a computer that could perfectly simulate the brain, we have no further need to study psychology. Indeed, empirical studies readily answer questions based on variables comprehend-able to human-kind. But the reason people have psychological issues is because they don’t quite understand  the brain. Such empirical studies provide essential foundations for psychology, however a lot can be done for applied psychology using psychodynamic paradigms.