Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Commentary, Religion, Science

Ghosts in the MRI, a Guest Post from John Lardas Modern

In Neuromatic: Or, A Particular History of Religion and the Brain, John Lardas Modern offers a powerful and original critique of neurology’s pivotal role in religious history. In this original piece below, adapted from his research, he looks at one specific instance of the attempt to use technology to measure religion in the brain.

It was a cool and rainy October day as I made my way to Dr. Patrick McNamara’s neuroscience laboratory. In through the glass doors, past the PatriotMart Cafeteria and convenience store, the ground floor lobby at the Jamaica Plain VA Hospital in Boston was full of aging soldiers in various states of disrepair.

book cover with brain

As the founding director of the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion at Boston University, Dr. McNamara has done much to advance neuroscientific investigations into religion over the past two decades. Specifically, Dr. McNamara and his team of researchers have begun to discover fascinating correlations between left-onset Parkinson’s disease and two things: 1) the erosion of religious interest and 2) increased difficulty in accessing religious concepts.

Rather than search for religion among enthusiastic exemplars of piety, Dr. McNamara’s research aims to isolate whatever religion is in the process of its disappearance By subjecting the brains of those who have been diagnosed with left-onset Parkinson’s disease to intense forms of measurement, including magnetic resonance imaging, McNamara hopes to glimpse, in this particular form of neural degeneration, the fleeting fundament of human religiosity.

While Dr. McNamara remains agnostic about what his research will, in the end, discover, he remains open to the possibility that religion can be explained with the proper tools and rigorous experimental design. “We have the potential to figure religion out,” he told me, “just like REM sleep. Not yet but perhaps soon given a patient, experimental, neurological approach to religion and cognition.”

As a historian, I have long been fascinated with the power of technology and the desire to measure religion. So I became a control subject in Dr. McNamara’s experiment on cognition and religious coping strategies in Parkinson’s Disease. Anonymized patient #41672 or, less precisely, an object of measurement and subject to encompassing scientific technique.

I had stepped into a space in which everything was coordinated, purified, immunized from the biases of culture and history. A citadel of science whose laboratory logic was pristine, mystical even in its formal qualities.

I was about to participate in a ritual of incredible technological prowess and diagnostic precision. I was about to become one with the questionnaires and surveys. To lay bare my life history for algorithmic judgment. To correspond with the magnetic collection of my data.

But more than merely submitting to a routine form of surveillance, I was entering into what might be called a religion machine. Designed, from the beginning, to wash over me, to generate all manner of belief—in me—about its own prowess and its own precision. A machine coded to catalyze the experience of religion at the molecular level; to encourage and sanctify my encounter with what, for all intents and purposes, was a spirit in this material world.

On the first of two days in Dr. McNamara’s laboratory, I completed the required consent forms. I then began to fill out survey after survey that sought to establish a baseline of religious and/or secular proclivity. First up, the Magical-Ideation Scale, used since the early 1980s to diagnose one’s proclivity to slide into schizophrenia and similar states of flawed causality such as clairvoyance, telepathy, superstition, and other forms of enthusiastic cognition. Statements followed by instructions to circle either true or false as they apply “to your beliefs.”

Can some people make you aware of them by thinking about you?


Do things sometimes seem to be in different places when you get home, even though no one has been there?


Have you had the momentary feeling that you might not be human?

<false, and this failure on my part is of continuing concern>

Does the government refuse to tell us the truth about flying saucers?

<well, I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “refuse”>

Do you sometimes have a feeling of gaining or losing energy when certain people look at you or touch you?

<all the time>

Have you noticed sounds on your records that are not there at other times?

<clean the needle>

When I turned my attention to the Post-Critical Belief Scale—I was prompted to measure the intensity of my agreement and disagreement, on a 1-to-7 scale, to a series of statements.

The Bible holds a deeper truth that can only be revealed by personal reflection.

<somewhat agree? deeper than what?>

If you want to understand the meaning of the miracle stories from the Bible, you should always place them in their historical context.

<somewhat agree, depends on “meaning”>

The scientific understanding of human life and the world makes a religious understanding obsolete.

<strongly disagree with all manner of assumptions here>

The majority of statements in the Post-Critical Belief Scale inquired into one’s beliefs, or lack thereof—in Jesus, the Bible, and a monotheistic God. The whole world is measured according to belief. A universal standard born of a highly particularized language. For despite their clinical anonymity, these statements were prodding and probing in a familiar American vernacular. Theirs was a grammar of true religion and false—a formal gesture that had been filled in with all manner of content depending on the scene and circumstance. Empty ritual ever contrasted with the authenticity of what was on the inside. Faith alone ever morphing into the singularity of our executive function

Here was a post-Protestant effect in which piety had become a natural feature of the world, built-in as it were, manifesting across cultures and persisting beyond the vicissitudes of time and context.

But rather than unearthing some deep layer of religiosity or secularity in me and exposing it to the light of reason, these statements felt like magical ideation. A process of making something out of nothing.

Religion was being conjured before and behind my very eyes. Religion catalyzed into existence through ecstatic acts of attention. Religion is defined primarily, and with all the authority scientific nomenclature can muster, as a mode of cognitive processing and specified neural activity. Religion is considered without considering its history. Religion is considered instrumentally, in terms of what is valuable, therapeutic, or pathological about its presence in your head.

The working assumption of Dr. McNamara and his team of scientists was that there existed “a positive relationship between religiosity and self-control.”

That assumption, however, was at odds with my experience of the scene. For as I was probed at ever-deeper levels, religion, conceived of as an internal affair revolving around cognition and choice, was being produced and then extracted from me.

During the next session, I sat behind a computer and answered a series of questions that measured my impulsivity and capacity for self-control. Before each question appeared, I was primed with either religious or secular cues. I picked up on them only about halfway through the exercise. Civic or mundane primes flashed almost imperceptibly across the computer screen—Hospital, Axe, Civil, Jolt, Jungle, Blink, Chisel, Hut, Lodge, Block, Pepper. Religious primes flitted by at the edges of my vision—words like Bible, Nun, Prayer, Monk, Temple, Saint, Angel, Heaven, Sin, Hell, Demon, Devil. After each prime, I was immediately asked whether I would like to have, say, $28 today or $30 in 110 days, or $67 today or $85 in 35 days.

Over and over again, the primes and the wagers changed and sometimes repeated, catalyzing anxiety over what I had just seen and whether I was being consistent in my own assessment of my desire for financial reward.

I then filled out the Religion/Spirituality Questionnaire—the slash marking, perhaps, the most common sense groove of American religious history in which privacy is demarcated from publicity, self from institutions, freedom from discipline. And as I would soon come to learn, the natural distinction between religion and spirituality undergirded the entire project—specifically, how the hypothesis neural network connectivity between different parts of the brain corresponded to different capacities for experiential and doctrinal religious knowledge.

To what extent do you consider yourself a religious person?

To what extent do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

My spiritual life history was then taken as a graduate student (whom I will call Steve) interviewed me over the course of two hours. Over and over again I was asked about my personal takes on “ultimate reality,” “ultimate meaning,” and “fundamental beliefs.” I was encouraged to imagine my spiritual life as a book with as many chapters as I wanted (although it was recommended that my book have between two and seven).

I talked about my baptism at age eight, the presence of an absent father in my life, and my use of recreational drugs as a form of psychic and analytical training. I talked about family trauma and the time that the devil followed me home after a Halloween party in Santa Barbara and pulled up to my driveway in a black pickup truck at 2 a.m. blasting the Eagles’ “Already Gone.” I related, in sentimental detail, my grandmother’s warning before I set off to college in 1989 that I never, ever take a class in religious studies because those professors, she said, well, those professors don’t believe in God.

Steve’s questions elicited honesty, confession, truth, a hyperawareness of my individualism, or rather, my desire to at least be interesting to others because of some difference within me.

The transcript of my spiritual life history—full of self-codings, confessional details, and verbal tics—was then scanned into NVivo.

NVivo, whose original name was NUD*IST—for Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching and Theorizing—is a qualitative data analysis program developed by QSR International in Melbourne, Australia. NVivo is a machine that goes where the human analyst cannot—into the organization and analysis of non-numerical data or unstructured information. Its algorithm separates, sorts, arranges, classifies, and categorizes links and models and links.  All the while searching for patterns in my speech that hinted at religious proclivities or, inversely, secular leanings.

Tests, surveys, the “extraction of information”—these were innocent enough. But my anxiety increased as I went through the MRI prescreening for the third time in two days. First the graduate student, then the neuroscientist, and finally the clinician in the MRI suite. Clipboard out, pen in hand, she asked me once again:

“Are you now or have you ever worked with metal or the cutting, grinding, or welding of metal? Have you ever been shot? Do you have any shrapnel in your body?”

“Yes, maybe,” I said sheepishly. “When I was little my grandma used to break open thermometers and let me play with the mercury in a bowl.”

“Will that still have an effect?” I asked.

“No, not on the MRI but mercury will erode the brain/blood barrier over time, which is not a good thing.”

My mind went off on a tangent. It was 1983. Early MTV. A few years before the MRI was approved by the FDA for clinical use. A broken-off thermometer atop a TV Guide on the coffee table. Mercury pulsating in a green glass bowl, eroding my brain/blood barrier over time. My grandmother, her intense evangelicalism, her struggles with mental illness, and her words of premillennial wisdom. “John Howard,” she would say—Howard being my middle name and the name of her late husband who had died when my own mother was only two years old—“John Howard,” she would say, “we are privileged to be living in the end times.”

The nurse went on with her questions, unphased.

“Do you have any implants, clips, valves, stimulating devices, or dermal patches?”

“No,” I said.

“Do you have a cardiac pacemaker, a neural stimulator, an implanted cardiac defibrillator, a cochlear implant, a dental implant, pacing wires, a hearing aid, an implanted insulin pump? Do you have a Swanz-Ganz catheter, any type of intravascular coil, filter, or stent, a heart valve, a penile prosthesis, a surgical clip or staple, dentures, a wire mesh, body piercings, or a tattoo?”

These questions and this routine were for my own benefit, of course. For anything metal in me that was not embedded resolutely in bone could fly out of my skin at a very high speed once the magnets were turned on.

The MRI, then, is an oddly menacing device in that it can only, safely, measure flesh uncorrupted by the materiality of metal. For in the MRI there is a mortal threat for those who have taken even the most modest steps toward mechanical security and inscription—death simmering in a simple stent or heating up the metal bits in particular types of tattoo ink.

I got up on the exam table and laid down. My head was fitted into position and my left hand was placed near a rubber ball that I could squeeze to signal that I was not doing fine for whatever reason, communicating with the technicians outside of the exam room, safe behind protective leaded glass.

Everything, it seemed, was in working order. I stared up at the white ceiling. Someone pushed a button and my table glided into the bore. More adjustments were made and the technician informed me that she was now going to leave the room.

The magnetic susceptibilities of my hydrogen nuclei were about to be manipulated in a massive way. Each was about to assume a slightly different charge, in unison, so that scientists outside could then measure the difference between the oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood running through my brain. Once my hydrogen protons were uniformly magnetized and their axes aligned, scientists could distinguish between these two blood states given their different magnetic properties. And once the computer had tracked the systemic flow of oxygen-rich blood in my brain, the scientists could chart real-time changes in neural activity due to the strange phenomenon that such activity causes the blood around it to become more oxygenated (known as BOLD, the blood oxygenation level-dependent effect).

The magnetic fields generated by the MRI are, under proper conditions, safe. In addition to issues of health and safety, it is a working assumption that there are no statistically significant cognitive effects precipitated by an MRI scan. The possibility that magnetic fields could fuel a blip of spontaneous neuronal activity or induce vertigo or nausea or cause a DNA lesion is consistently acknowledged but, lacking evidence, remains a peripheral concern,

In study after study, the patient’s experience of the MRI is also assumed to have little effect on what is being measured. Clinical experiences may be intense but rarely interfere with data capture or confound the brain’s work-a-day processing of information.

While lacking a credentialed foundation for dissent I find this claim hard to believe.

For in this Magnetom 3T Trio there is utter abjection. There is the impulse to run screaming from the shaking table and clanking gears. There are the high-pitched, otherworldly blips cascading—sounds whose acoustic sheen is precision incarnate. There is the sense that the plane is really, truly going down this time. There is the terror and there is the management of terror. There is the pounding of your flesh with sound and energy but nothing quite tangible. There is more terror. And there is panic but there is the yogic ease of breathing deeply, not swallowing, not moving, focusing on the most minimal tasks of breathing deeply, not swallowing, not moving.

In this particular MRI at the Boston VA, religion had become something in need of measured explanation. For in order to figure out religion, it must be located and pinned down as a matter of “information processing in the brain.” Such process, in turn, is “related to one’s beliefs about supernatural agents, god-concepts, and the relative interaction between these perceived metaphysical entities and one’s self.”

As the conceit that undergirds this entire essay, in this particular MRI I sensed the presence of an agency, or, rather, I became deeply appreciative of that which or who or what had gained full access to intimacies that I had long forgotten about.

I was dependent on this machine for this truth.

Here, then, finally, is a picture of my brain on that cold and rainy afternoon.

In addition to capturing the neural substrate of my brain, this picture offers a glimpse into another world. For in this picture you can see the imprint of my mind upon the machine. But if you look closely, you can also make out something else: namely, the imprint of some other kind of machine upon my mind and, perhaps, yours, too.

For we are privileged.

To be living.

Forever and ever.


John Lardas Modern is a Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College. This essay was adapted from Neuromatic, or; A Particular History of Religion and the Brain, which is now available from our website or your favorite bookseller.