Religious Experiences and Neuroscience

In Paris, I have noticed that many of the older buildings have been repurposed to house museum collections. The Louvre, for example, was originally built in the twelfth century as a fortress and was later converted into one of the main royal palaces for the royal family and their court before becoming the art museum we know it to be. For our last excursion, we took a trip to the Musée de Santé des Armées, a museum devoted to medical military technology. This museum, like the Musée Arts et Métiers, was once a convent. The first exhibition in the museum explains the history of the building, and there is also a chapel in the center that is still actively used. In fact, while we were there an altar boy was in training.

Reaching into the medicine cabinet

The convent was home to the Benedictine nuns in the 1600’s and 1700’s. During the French Revolution, the nuns acted as nurses and took care of wounded soldiers within the convent (Abécassis, 1992). Because this was treated as a hospital during the war, it experienced less destruction than most other famous buildings throughout Paris, so more of the original structures are still in place today. The church was eventually converted into a military hospital, and then a museum once the currently active military hospital was built in the 1970’s (Abécassis, 1992).

The Benedictine nuns

Although science and religion are usually considered opposites, there are several studies published that investigate how religious experiences impact brain activity. In a study performed by Mario Beauregard and his colleagues in 2008, 14 Carmelite nuns participated in a study where their brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalography device during the memory of a mystical experience. For the purpose of this study, a mystical experience was defined as “the most intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of the Carmelite Order.” (Beauregard and Paquette, 2008). During these episodes, there were changes in the activity of multiple areas of the brain with varying functions, which supports the theory that strong religious experiences affect multiple sensory systems and cognitive processes simultaneously. Major changes in the brain were found in activity of the left parietal lobe, the central frontal lobe, as well as increased connectivity between the left frontal and central areas and the frontal, temporal and parietal regions of the brain (Beauregard and Paquette, 2008. While this study did not measure the activity of the brain during the mystical experience itself, it still gives neuroscientists important insight into the brain during experiences that are out of our control.


Abécassis, A. F. (1992). The Val de Grace army teaching hospital // L’hôpital d’instruction des armées du Val de Grâce. La Revue De Reference Infirmiere,58-62.

Beauregard, M., & Paquette, V. (2008). EEG activity in Carmelite nuns during a mystical experience. Neuroscience Letters,444(1), 1-4. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2008.08.028

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