Neuroscience Letters disclose today the result of a Templeton Foundation-sponsored fMRI study aimed at testing ("neurotheology" - founder) Michael Persinger's claim, that a module in the temporal lobe triggers, when stimulated, mental states akin to mystical ones. Persinger's hypothesis was derived from internal stimulation in epileptic patients. The Québec fMRI study reveals a hodgepodge of curious activations. These results seem difficult to concile with Persinger's hypothesis ; neither are they compatible with other data from similar experiments (such as the study featuring buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard). Perhaps it is time for neurotheology to clarify what it really expects from brain scans.

Either way, the study would have been a media success for the Templeton crew : if the study had revealed Persinger's temporal module, this would have been taken as proof to the idea that God wired us to believe. But if the study fails dismally because of an approximative design, then (as the Telegraph has it today) "Nuns prove that God is no figment of the mind". From a materialistic perspective, the results are equally malleable : news@Nature celebrates the discovery of a God-related cerebral network (they would have welcomed a God-dedicated module but that didn't come up; never mind!). This kind of study simply doesn't need to yield interesting data : the mere fact that nuns' brains are being scanned, and that something, whatever it is, can be seen, is enough to attract attention.

Everyone sensible must agree that something happens in one's brain when we think : this idea is compatible with every possible metaphysical point of view. The only thing that can be expected from neurotheology today is a proof that something happens in one's brain when one thinks about God ; once you've admitted that, and you need not be a die-hard materialist to do so, your religious attitudes won't get changed a bit.

But what singles out this paper in the sea of neurotheological trials is its delightful control condition, in which the contemplative - and consequently secluded - catholic nuns from Québec relived their most intense experience of union with another human being. The paper reports: "the subjects experienced a feeling of unconditional love during the control condition".