In the first of what he hopes will be a series of experiments, Dr Beauregard and his doctoral student Vincent Paquette are recording electrical activity in the brains of seven Carmelite nuns through electrodes attached to their scalps. Their aim is to identify the brain processes underlying the Unio Mystica—the Christian notion of mystical union with God. The nuns (the researchers hope to recruit 15 in all) will also have their brains scanned using positron-emission tomography and functional magnetic-resonance imaging, the most powerful brain-imaging tools available.
The study has met with scepticism from both subjects and scientists. Dr Beauregard had first to convince the nuns that he was not trying to prove or disprove the existence of God. Scientific critics, meanwhile, have accused him of being too reductionist—of pretending to pinpoint the soul in the brain in the same way that the Victorians played phrenology as a parlour game by feeling the contours of each others’ skulls to find a bulge of secretiveness or a missing patch of generosity.