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Blog Week 12

The journal article I have chosen to blog about in Week 12 is concerned with the “Neural Correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns”.  The Article was published in 2006 by co-contributors Mario Beauregard and Vincent Paquette.  This particular article provides intriguing reading and reveals the possibility that neuroscience may provide scientific evidence of Religious, Spiritual and Mystical Experiences (RSME’s) in individuals. 

The objective of the experiment was to establish the neural foundations for experiences that are Religious, Spiritual or Mystical in nature. Therefore the Researchers Hypothesis is that “’there is a relationship between RSME’s and neural activity”.  The sample selection considered a group of fifteen Carmelite nuns with ages ranging from 23-64 with a mean age of 49.93 and a standard deviation of 11.27.   This sample involved nun’s whose average affiliation with the order was 19.27 years standard deviation 11.49, range 2-37.  Nuns were reported to have no known psychiatric or neurological disorders and neither were they smokers or taking any medications.  Additionally nine of the nuns were discovered to be menopausal.

The investigation involved a within group design who were exposed to three manipulated conditions.  During the experimental Mystical condition participants were asked to relive their most intense mystical experience whilst practising as a nun.   The controlled condition involved participants reliving their most intense state of union with another person whilst being associated with the order.  The third and base line condition involved participants just assuming a restful state with their eyes closed.  Participants were asked to relieve these conditions one week prior to the actual treatments in order to familiarise themselves with the test parameters. 

The test parameters where as follows:

Rest Block (30 seconds)

Controlled Block (5 mins)

Rest (1 min)

Controlled Block (5 mins)

Rest (1 min)

Mystical Block (5 mins)

Rest (1 min)]

Mystical Block (5mins)

 

Test parameters for the investigation were motivated by factors such as providing enough time for transfer between states, to avoid contamination from Mystical block to control block and to reduce participant fatigue.  Subsequent to the investigation participants experiences during the study were measured according to a numerical rating scale.

0)      No experience of union to 5) most intense experience of union ever felt.

 

General findings provide evidence to support that many brain regions and systems mediate mystical experiences.  The study revealed that during Mystical experiences complicated functions are at work such as perception, cognition and emotion.  Moreover that during the Mystical experience that scans showed very specific regions of brain activation.  Although of most intrigue is the fact that in the conditions of Mystical and Control, were one would expect patterns of brain activation to be fairly comparable due to similarities in the experiences of union.  That conversely mapping actually revealed very distinct and separate regions of brain activity.

As part of the blog task I am required to respond two specific questions.  The first is whether the title of the journal article accurately summarises and reflects the nature of the studies design and finding?  Following appraisal of the article I find the title to be both a fair and true representation of the study’s design and findings.  I arrive at this conclusion because firstly the investigation undertaken used objective scientific methods in its use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) to facilitate mapping of brain functions and neural activity.  Furthermore the evidence provided as a consequence of experimental design supports that during the Carmelite nuns induced state of union with God, brain activity was observed in specific regions of the brain and this therefore supports the likelihood of a correlation between the experience and actual neural activity.  Furthermore that there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that RSME’s seems to be linked to Temporal Lobe Epilepsy TLE.

It is important to acknowledge that although the investigation used scientific and objective methods of brain mapping it also utilised qualitative methods of data extrapolation such as interviewing all participants following scanning.  This is an area of weakness within the study because the term Mystical may have alternative meaning for many.  How therefore can it be categorised?  Although the researcher’s has made attempts to control such subjectivity by implementation of a Mystical ratings system, however many will argue that such qualitative data is subjective and unsafe from which to make generalisations.  Additionally the choice of a within group design is reductionist in approach, as it has limited the opportunity to investigate differences between groups.  An extension of the study may consider other religious or spiritual groups to ascertain whether there are similarities or differences between religions groups.  Or differences or similarities in religious experiences between the genders involved such religious orders. 

The second question is what conclusions are the news report and headline inferring and is it warranted given the description of the study?  The news headline gives the reader the false impression that the science is contesting the existence of god which is completely misleading.  Although in contrast half way into the article there is a quote from the Neuroscientist Dr Mario Beauregard which categorically states that the study “neither confirms nor disconfirms the existence of god”.  The news headlines do exactly what new headlines are supposed to do which is to get the attention of the reader, although technically yes it is media misrepresentation of facts.  However, what better way is there than to take the angle of belief v non-belief in order to attract a buyer, who in most cases will be ignorant to developments in Neuroscience.  I think the article conveys the science in a fairly accurate way that uses language that can be understood by the masses making the science accessible to the masses.

The websites liisted below highlight the importance of further investigation into Spiritual Neuro-Science or Neurotheology as it is sometimes known, but also even Parapsychology. I once watched an intriguing documentary concerning Exorcism in which Neurological Scientist provided scientific explanations for previously unexplainable behaviours believed to be demonic possessions.  Explanations from the scientific perspective included Epileptic Seizures but also Tourette’s syndrome and even Autism.  Please take a look at the links for further information, I couldn’t find the exact documentary but these are just as informative and fascinating. 🙂

Website of Interest:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGssW4cMR5s

http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/godonbrain.shtml

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YPOTaUyvA0 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parapsychology

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6jNTFibW2E&feature=related

http://nirmukta.com/2011/10/26/the-god-of-mind-exploring-the-implications-of-neurotheological-research/

For further series of the Real Story of Exorcism see U tube.

References:

Beauregard, M. & Paquette, V. (2006) The neural correlate of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns, Science direct. Doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2006.06.060.

Highfeild, R. (2006) Nuns prove god is not figment of the mind. The Telegraph.

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