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Mystical Brain

Scientists survey the 'no man’s land' between science and religion

By Drew Halfnight

Mystical Brain
Directed by Isabelle Raynauld

After many years at war, the captains of science and religion are finally coming together at conferences and symposia to establish small truces.

Those in lab coats have acknowledged and begun to study mystical experience, while those in robes have conceded that science sheds light on God, revealing God’s beauty and deepening God’s mystery.

It’s a shaky détente, with hard-liners on both sides constantly threatening to take up arms.

Mystical Brain, a short documentary by University of Montreal film historian Isabelle Raynauld, surveys the no man’s land between science and religion, where people from both camps are teaming up to learn how the brain looks during prayer, meditation and other “mystical” practices.

One team, led by University of Montreal researcher Mario Beauregard, records brain waves of praying Carmelite nuns, showing a correlation between states of prayer and certain brain activity. From there, Beauregard leaps to the conclusion that human beings are “defined and controlled” not only by electrical and chemical processes but by spiritual processes, too. (A journalist accuses Beauregard of exploiting science to validate religion — perhaps a fair charge.)

In the materialist camp is the eccentric Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., who believes religious experiences are neural phenomena. Persinger uses something he calls the God helmet — go-karting headgear rigged up with electromagnets — to induce states of religious epiphany “without the baggage” of institutional religion.

The film also features the work of Richard Davidson, whose team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown, through brain imaging, that physiological changes take place during meditation. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard is shown answering questions about meditation while Davidson’s team blankets his naked scalp with dozens of white electrodes.

Mystical Brain is a light introduction to a heavy topic, showing the personalities and perspectives at the centre of the debate over the nature of the soul.

Tufts University philosopher and noted secularist Daniel Dennett, who provides musings throughout, says scientists and spiritualists have in common a passion for understanding. “Science at its best is very spiritual. Very spiritual,” he says, while religion, freed from the bonds of doctrine, is genetic.

Now, if only the warring parties would agree to this in writing.


Drew Halfnight is a writer in Guelph, Ont.


Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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