Reprinted from the May 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission.

Instead of leading a life devoted to prayer, meditation and personal reflection to achieve a religious experience, people may one day ask scientists to "zap" their brains. A neuroscientist in Canada said he hopes to find a biological basis for religious experiences.

Dr. Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist from the University of Montreal, is using medicine's most powerful brain imaging tools to study Carmelite nuns when they remember Unio Mystica, the Christian mystical union with God. Most nuns only experience the mystic union once or twice in their lifetime, if at all.

The mystical union happens when a person finds "the center of themselves in God," said Ilia Delio, a neuropharmacologist and professor of spirituality at Washington Theological Union. During this state, the individual is so immersed in God that "they couldn't even conceive of their life apart from God," she added.

Beauregard said he and his assistant, Vincent Paquette, initially hoped the nuns would have the experience in the lab, but nuns told him it was impossible to self-induce. Instead, the nuns relive the experience by remembering what they felt.

Beauregard's new field, known as neurotheology, raises questions about the human soul and God. Hoping to find a biological basis for religious experiences, Beauregard has dealt with criticism from those who "are happy with the separation" of science and religion, he said.

Finding nuns willing to participate in the research hasn't been easy, Beauregard said, as many worry he is trying to prove that religious experiences are simply an illusion of the mind.

The Rev. Raymond Lawrence Jr., of New York's Presbyterian Hospital, is among the skeptics. The research, he said, "has nothing to do with the truth of religion." The experience, he added, will not lead to God's discovery. "At the end of the day, you only have an experience. It doesn't prove the existence of God," Lawrence said.

Beauregard said the nine nuns in the study are "convinced that we're going to find something."

In order to understand what is happening in the brain electrically, chemically and physiologically, Beauregard's research is divided into three parts.

The first part of the study uses electroencephalography, or EEG, to measure the nuns' brain waves.

As expected, the scientists discovered a slow brain wave pattern in the nuns, "which is comparable to those previously found in yogis and Buddhist monks during deep meditative states," Beauregard said.

The second trial will use a PET scan, or positron emission tomography, to measure the brain's levels of serotonin, which helps regulates a person's moods.

In the final phase, Beauregard will use functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which shows the brain's active areas.

Through this research, it might be possible to help individuals enhance or even induce a spiritual experience, Beauregard said. He said he hopes his research will lead to helping "normal people, not mystics, to have access to that type of experience by perhaps stimulating the brain."

Lawrence said replicating the experience "would be a catastrophe for religion" because it would distort religious meaning. Stimulating the brain to create such an experience is "not authentic religion," he added.

Delio, on the other hand, said she supports the idea of biologically enhancing someone's spiritual experience. "I have no problem with that really, because I think sometimes people don't have religious experiences for a number of reasons." For example, she said, some people grow up in abusive or atheist families. "Maybe those circuits were never turned on," she said.

The scientists are looking for six more nuns to participate in the research. Beauregard expects all three studies will be done in about a year.

Delio said it is important to explore the link between science and religion. "We're talking about the human person and the human person is not simply spirit. The human person is concrete matter that expresses itself spiritually," she said.

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