Spiritual Transformation Q&A: Mario Beauregard

Mario Beauregard is an associate professor in the departments of radiology and psychology at the Université de Montréal in Canada. Beauregard’s study for the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program, entitled “Neurobiology of the Mystical Experience”, will combine, for the first time, three powerful functional neuroimaging technologies (functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, positron emission tomography or PET, and quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG)) to identify underlying circuitry and neuroelectrical and neurochemical correlates of the mystical union with God—unio mystica —as achieved within the spiritual practices of French-Canadian Carmelite nuns. I asked Mario Beauregard some questions about his neuroscientific research on Carmelite nuns for the program.


Christopher Stawski: How did you decide to conduct neuroscientific research on Carmelite nuns and how did you secure the participation of this private Catholic community and its members in Canada? 

Mario Beauregard: I decided to conduct neuroscientific research on Carmelite nuns for four main reasons: a) I am interested by the neurobiology of the mystical experience; b) this contemplative order overtly aspire to grow in union with God; c) there is a Carmelite convent in Montreal; and, d) the monastery’s prioress agreed to ask the other nuns to participate in the project before I wrote the letter of intent for the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program.

CS: What is unio mystica?

MB: The conscious union of the self with God (the ultimate ground of Being)—this definition is based on the framework proposed by Evelyn Underhill in her book titled Mysticism.

CS: Are there specific techniques that the Carmelites use to try and gain access to unio mystica?

MB: No, there are no specific techniques to gain access to unio mystica since this state is experienced only via God’s grace (according to the what the Carmelites believe). However, Carmelites pray for several hours every day in order to remain in the company of Christ.

CS: When and why do these experiences happen to Carmelite nuns? 

MB: The nuns told me that they do not know when these experiences will happen because such experiences are the product of God’s grace.

CS:  How is unio mystica a spiritually transforming experience?

MB: Unio mystica usually leads to a deep psycho-spiritual transformation. The self is remade and more unified. It rises to new freedom. The egocentric consciousness of selfhood is abolished. There is now an experience of oneness and universality, as well of love, peace and joy.

CS: How many Carmelite Nuns plan to participate in the project?

MB: So far, ten nuns have accepted to participate in our project. Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Archbishop of Montreal, has written a letter in support of the project in a publication read by Quebec's other contemplative orders. I hope that this letter will help to attract as many as 15 volunteers from four other Carmelite communities in the province of Quebec.

CS: In order to participate in this study, is it a requirement for a nun to have had an experience of unio mystica, or are you also including other nuns who are familiar with stories of unio mystica as recounted by fellow community members or narratives of saints?

MB: To participate in our project, it is a requirement for a nun to have had an experience of unio mystica at least once in her life.

CS: Your project is the first being conducted that will combine the three brain-imaging techniques of QEEG, fMRI, and PET to study religious experiences. What do each of these brain-imaging techniques tell us separately and what is the advantage in combing these methods?

MB: These functional neuroimaging technologies provide complementary information with respect to regional brain activity. The combination of these three powerful functional brain imaging technologies allows us to identify the diverse types of neurobiological correlates (i.e., neuroelectrical, neurochemical, and functional neuroanatomical) of unio mystica.

Quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG) permits us to identify the dominant frequencies, positron emission tomography (PET) allows us to measure the activity of serotonin in the various regions found in the brain, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provides information regarding the brain regions and circuits associated with unio mystica.

CS: When you are performing the brain scans of one of the nuns, you ask them to remember the experience that they had of unio mystica. From a neuroscientific perspective, how does memory of an experience like this relate to having the experience at that moment?   

MB: We have recently carried out two studies with professional actors living in Montreal. In the first study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain regions and circuits associated with sadness and happiness. In the second study, the protocol was similar except that we measured the activity of serotonin during these two emotional states. In order to self-induce sadness and happiness, actors were asked to recall and re-experience powerful personal emotional episodes involving either sadness or happiness (the saddest life episode and the happiest life episode). Results indicated that the utilization of such a strategy is a viable means to discover what happens in the brain during intense emotional states. Indeed, as predicted, the regional cerebral changes noted in these two studies were located in the brain regions known to be involved in emotional behavior.

When the prioress told my doctoral student Vincent Paquette and I that it would not be possible to voluntarily self-induce a mystical experience (God can't be summoned at will, said the prioress) we decided to ask the nuns, while being scanned, to remember and re-experience the most intense unio mystica experience felt in their personal lives. Using such a strategy, the nuns appear to be able to attain deep unitive states.

CS: How did you become involved with neuroscientific research on religious experience? 

MB: I decided to become involved with neuroscientific research on religious/spiritual/mystical experiences based on a series of personal experiences I have had since my childhood.

CS:  There have been other researchers who have begun using neuroscientific methods to understand meditation, particularly on Buddhist and Christian forms of meditation, in a burgeoning field taking shape called “neurotheology.” What do you think neuroscience can contribute to theological discussions across religious traditions?

MB: Theology is the discipline which treats of the existence, character, and attributes of God. “Neurothelogy” attempts to elucidate the neural bases of religious/spiritual/mystical experiences. Relying on sophisticated neuroimaging technologies, the “neurotheological” enterprise permits us to gather information regarding the brain regions and circuits involved in such experiences, as well as the underlying neurelectrical and neurochemical processes. Obviously, the external reality of “God” can neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed by delineating the neural correlates of religious/spiritual/mystical experiences. In other words, the neuroscientific study of what happens to the brain during these experiences does not tell us anything new about God.

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