A Spiritual Neuroscience – Mario Beauregard

Another interesting viewpoint that suggests our understanding of the nature of consciousness would benefit from being more inclusive appears in the book, “The Spiritual Brain,” which takes on the purely materialistic view that the brain alone produces the mind and accounts for consciousness. In a methodically reasoned and admirably balanced manner, the book addresses how, in the author’s view, “the activity of the human mind…is not identical to the functions of the brain.” Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to discover which areas of the brain were active when a group of Carmelite nuns recalled their most profound spiritual experiences.

In a 2006 study the recall by nuns of communion with God invigorated the brain’s caudate nucleus, insula, inferior parietal lobe (IPL) and medial orbitofrontal cortex (MOFC), among other brain regions. Image: Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Nuns, by M. Beauregard and V. Paquette, in Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 405, No. 3; 2006

In the October/November 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind, (Searching for God in the Brain) associate editor David Biello describes how the research attempts to “pin down what happens in the brain when people experience spiritual awakenings during prayer and meditation,” and suggests that such research “might reconcile religion and science,” with regard to this issue. The debate continues on several fronts, but a consensus seems unlikely anytime soon.

It’s not so surprising that scientists and materialist proponents of this debate have such a difficult time reconciling the facts of neuroscience with the subjective experience of consciousness, since, by far, the most astonishing aspect of the debate is that consciousness even exists at all, based on what is currently known about neural and cognitive functioning. Since there is no solid scientific evidence that supports even the existence of consciousness, our subjective experience of it, which is so real to us as individuals living “inside our heads,” flies in the face of the materialist view. The same is true of quantum theory.

Modern physics provides us with a context within which to begin formulating a non-material construct as a component of consciousness. Quantum theory, which posits, among other ideas, that the very act of observing quantum events alters the outcome of those events–our conscious intention to observe or study quantum phenomena–may be a vitally important aspect of comprehending them. According to Beauregard, “The synapses, the spaces between the neurons of the brain, conduct signals using parts of atoms called ions. The ions function according to the rules of quantum physics.”

If consciousness is supported by activity at the subatomic level of matter and energy, and therefore subject to interaction with the quantum effects in the matter of the brain, our intentions that are manifested in our conscious acts may influence the activity on a fundamental level in that “non-material” realm. There is a great deal more to know about this interaction, and all of the components that constitute a comprehensive understanding of consciousness, but there really isn’t anything fundamentally incompatible about the idea that scientific and spiritual notions, if applied, might result in additional insights to both sides of the debate.

Much more to come…

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