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.