University of Utah study finds that spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits

Findings of a new report out of the University of Utah School of Medicine say that religious and spiritual experience activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music.

The findings were reported in the journal Social Neuroscience. The study is the first initiative of the Religious Brain Project, which was launched by a group of University of Utah researchers in 2014. The project aims to understand how the brain operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs.

“We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent,” said Jeff Anderson, senior author of the study and neuroradiologist, in a press release. “In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.

The study focused on devout Mormons. Researchers created an environment that triggered participants to “feel the Spirit.” During fMRI scans of 19 young-adult church members, participants were asked to perform four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings.

The hour-long exam included six minutes of rest; six minutes of audiovisual control (a video about their church’s membership statistics); eight minutes of quotations by Mormon and world religious leaders; eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon; 12 minutes of audio-visual stimuli (church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes and other religious content); and another eight minutes of quotations.

During the initial quotation portion of the exam, participants – each a former full-time missionary – were shown a series of quotes followed by the question “Are you feeling the spirit?” Participants then responded with answers ranging from “not feeling” to “very strongly feeling.”

Researchers then collected the assessments of the feelings of participants, who, almost universally, reported experiencing the kinds of feelings typical of an intense worship service. They described feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth. Many were in tears by the end of the scan, researchers said. In one experiment, participants pushed a button when they felt a peak spiritual feeling while watching church-produced stimuli.

When study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded, stated lead author Michael Ferguson, who carried out the study as a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah.

Based on fMRI scans, the researchers found that powerful spiritual feelings were reproducibly associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens, which is a critical brain region for processing rewards. Peak activity occurred about 1-3 seconds before participants pushed the button and was replicated in each of the four tasks. As participants were experiencing peak feelings, their hearts beat faster and their breathing deepened.

In addition to the brain’s reward circuits, the researchers found that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a complex brain region that is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgment and moral reasoning. Spiritual feelings also activated brain regions associated with focused attention.

Anderson, noted that it is not known whether believers of other religions would respond the same way. Work by others suggests that the brain responds quite differently to meditative and contemplative practices characteristic of some eastern religions, but so far little is known about the neuroscience of western spiritual practices, researchers said.

Niels Henrik Gregersen to speak at annual Goshen Religion and Science Conference

The theme of the annual Goshen Religion and Science Conference at Goshen College is “Deep Incarnation: From Cosmos to Commitment” and the speaker will be Niels Henrik Gregersen of the University of Copenhagen.

Held March 24-26, 2017, the conference will feature three main lectures. The lecture titles are: “The Cosmic Christ: God in a World of Mass, Energy and Information;” “Christ and Biology: Creativity and Suffering in a World of Biological Agency;” and “Christ and Culture: The Jesus Story and the Cultivation of Commitment.”

Professor Gregersen received his Ph.D. in theology from the University of Copenhagen in 1987. Between 1986 and 2004 he held various faculty positions at Aarhus University, from 2000 to 2004 as research professor in Theology and Science. Since 2004, he has been professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Copenhagen.

From 1992 to 2003, he was a leader of the Danish Science-Theology Forum; 1998-2002 vice president of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT) and responsible for its publication program. In 2002, he was elected president of The Learned Society, Denmark. He is a founding member and trustee of International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) 2002-2007.

First held in 2001, the Goshen conference has hosted well-known religion and science scholars including Philip Clayton, George Ellis, John Haught, Nancey Murphy and Phil Hefner.

One astronomer ponders whether Star of Bethlehem was really a star

Grant Mathews, professor of theoretical astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Notre Dame, has studied the Star of Bethlehem for more than a decade and may have discovered that it isn’t a star after all.

“Astronomers, historians and theologians have pondered the question of the ‘Christmas Star’ for many years,” said Mathews in a University of Notre Dame press release. “Where and when did it appear? What did it look like? Of the billions of stars out there, which among them shone bright on that day so long ago?”

Astrophysics is how scientists attempt to explain one of history’s greatest astronomical events, he added.

Mathews studied historical, astronomical and biblical records in his research. He said he believes that the event that led the Magi to Bethlehem was an extremely rare planetary alignment that occurred in 6 B.C. and the likes of which may never be seen again. The alignment was of the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn that were all in Aries, while Venus was next door in Pisces and Mercury and Mars were on the other side in Taurus. At the time, Aries was also the location of the vernal equinox, he said. This alignment was thought to signify a newborn ruler in Judea.

Based on Mathews’ calculations, it will be 16,000 years before a similar alignment occurs and even then it would not be the exact same location in Aries. Interestingly, he said he could not find an alignment like the one known as the Bethlehem Star going out as far as 500,000 years.

Mathews is working on a book about his findings. He also gives an annual public lecture at the University of Notre Dame’s Digital Visualization Theatre, where he maps the history of the sky dating back to 6 B.C.

Kaufman Interfaith Institute awarded science and religion grant

The Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University won a nearly $1 million grant to conduct a project on how religion is impacted by science.

Awarded by the John Templeton Foundation, the funds will be spent on organizing workshops and paying participants. According to a statement from Kelly Clark, senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, the project consists of professors, philosophers, physicists and biologists, all of whom identify with Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

The project will take place over two years and in many different countries, eventually concluding in a conference in Istanbul. After the project is completed, the institute is expected to publish two books, produce a video and create numerous scholarly articles about the project.

The grant is the largest the institute has received in its six years of existence. The Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, Douglas Kindschi, said the institute is already in talks with GVSU president Thomas Haas about future grants.

The Kaufman Interfaith Institute was founded on the interfaith work done by Sylvia Kaufman, which has led to the creation of the Triennial Interfaith Dialogue and the West Michigan Academic Consortium. The institute was founded in her honor, with Kindschi as its founding director.

“While the Kaufman Interfaith Institute began as a West Michigan project, it has received national attention for the work we do in interfaith understanding, and for our science and religion program,” said Kindschi in a university press release. “This grant takes both of these missions and puts them on the international stage.”

Fellowship selects fifteen writers to tell true stories about science and religion

The fifteen Think Write Publish fellows were recently announced with a farmer, a philosopher, an astrophysicist, a nurse, a priest and a procurement manager among the storytellers selected to learn and apply the art of creative nonfiction in telling true stories of science and religion.

The fellowship, sponsored by Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS), is a two-year project to write and publish “engaging and inspiring nonfiction narratives of harmonies, reconciliation and synergy between science and religion. Each fellow received a $10,000 stipend and will attend three training workshops and participate in a variety of events.

Proposed stories include a portrayal of the importance of religion in the work of the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler; an inside look at a Catholic school on the U.S.-Mexico border that combines traditional religious training with rigorous scientific education; and a memoir about how shared religious devotion led to reconciliation between a physicist father estranged from his humanist daughter.

Leaders of the program say it is motivated by the belief that tensions between science and religion as a source of divisiveness in society today are unfounded. They say stories of science-religion harmony are not widely known.

Through the fellowship program, as well as a separate writing competition, a series of public events, and a partnership with science museums across the nation, the TWP Science and Religion program will bring to the public a diverse set of true stories that can help foster greater awareness and appreciation for the ways that science and religion may complement one another.

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