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.

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