________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007


Mystical Brain: Scientists Meet Spirituality Head-On.

Isabelle Raynauld (Director). Colette Loumède (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
52 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153E 9907 038.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Frank Loreto.

** /4

When I was in Grade 2, I remember our parish priest trying to describe the soul. He drew the outline of a person and then made an amoeba-like blob inside to show that the soul was inside us. He made it clear that he was not drawing a soul but just the idea of the soul. That blob seemed to have more power than either our brains or our hearts.

     In Mystical Brain, the filmmakers try to explain another aspect of our make-up that seems to elude the general practices of psychology. We know what the brain is and how it works, but what exactly is the mind? As the soul is more than just a blob in the body, the mind is much more than simply the brain at work.

     Mystical Brain looks at a number of contemporary psychological studies in the area of mysticism and spirituality and their connection to how the brain reacts. One EEG study involving a number of Carmelite nuns in Quebec showed that, while at prayer or in a mystical state, their brain activity measured consistent results. The same nuns undergoing MRI study, again showed that their brains were performing in a similar manner. In each study, the researchers could see the part of the brain which was being stimulated.

     At a Neurosciences Conference in San Diego, with as many as 38,000 attendees, only the Carmelite study looked at the issue of spirituality and the brain. This is not an area where many wish to go. While the presentation generates interest among the attendees, traditional science tends to steer clear of this area of study. However, the film, through a variety of speakers, states that this is a crucial area of human nature. A number of projects are presented, but the feeling is that much more should be going on.

     At Laurentian University, a study is underway to see if it is possible to stimulate the brain in such a way as to replicate the mystical experience-to create the "God experience." So many people have been altered by a split-second, life-changing incident of a religious nature. What if a person can undergo that experience without the "religious baggage"? Might it be possible to trigger that part of the brain and thereby change that person in a positive way? 

     The film states, "Meditation is designed to decrease human suffering and improve well being." People who have undergone just two months of meditation study show positive changes. Another study looks at Tibetan Buddhist monks. Only those who have 10,000 to 62,000 hours of practiced meditation were invited to take part. Clearly, mystical experiences transcend cultural and religious lines.

     The general feeling however, is that this area of psychology is not openly accepted by the larger community. "Scientists run in a flock-very conservative-so too are the granting agencies.  The common belief is that we are biotic robots controlled by electrical and chemical processes and genetics." The understanding of consciousness is more elusive both in research and in funding. The Carmelite study was planning to look at the impact of serotonin, but the researchers are filmed as they get word that the funding was not granted.

     Mystical Brain ends at a conference hosted by the Dalai Lama. The Mind and Life Institute is investigating the connection between science, contemplative meditation and pain. There is great excitement and open debate with a diverse panel, which shows that there are many who are willing to explore this area of psychology. As this is an ongoing search, there are no definitive answers provided at this time.

     Mystical Brain is an interesting film and would be very useful in any course that looks at the workings of the brain, say Biology or Kinesiology, or more specifically Psychology. Much of the research is being done in Canada, so this could assure those students interested in a career in Psychology that ground-breaking work is being done here. Religious based schools could also use this as a starting point for some interesting discussion. Viewed at one sitting, students may find the film slow. However, there is a great deal of information that teachers could glean from the information presented.


Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.

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