Hunting god in the brain: Spiritual experiences light up neural reward circuits

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A scan shows regions of the brain that become active when devoutly religious study participants have a spiritual experience(Credit: Jeffrey Anderson)

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Millennia-old religious faith and cutting-edge neuroscience seem an unlikely pairing, but by combining the two, researchers have uncovered new information about our brain's response to spiritual experiences. The team observed the brain's reward circuits in Mormons as they engaged in spiritual activities, finding that they activated reward regions in a very similar fashion to other stimuli like gambling, drugs, sex and love.

Of course, the fact that people have been engaging in religious practices for thousands of years suggests that they get something from the experience, but the physical response that it triggers in the brain has been something of an unknown. Recent, rapid advances in imaging technologies are now giving scientists the means to explore these types of questions, as Jeff Anderson, neuroradiologist at the University of Utah, explains.

"Functional imaging has really undergone a revolution over the last 10 years," he tells New Atlas. "There are new types of MRI sequences which let us image much faster, so we can scan the entire brain more than once a second. This gives us so much more information and now effectively lets us freeze head motion, artifacts from heartbeats and breathing, and lets us measure more precise changes in the brain."

Anderson and his team used these technologies to investigate the brain activity of 19 adult Mormons, each a former full-time missionary, as they engaged in sessions designed to trigger spiritual feelings. These ran for an hour apiece and included tasks like reading passages from the Book of Mormon, listening to quotations by Mormon and other religious leaders and watching church-produced biblical videos.

During the sessions, the subjects were repeatedly asked the question "are you feeling the spirit?" This question pertained to the subject's feeling of peace and closeness to God, something that forms an important part of their religion and influences everyday decision-making. The answers ranged from "not feeling" to "very strongly feeling," and the researchers say across the board the types of feelings were typical of an intense worship service, with some feeling peace and warmth and others driven to tears.

"When our 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," says lead author Michael Ferguson.

More specifically, these powerful spiritual feelings coincided with activation of the nucleus accumbens, a brain region that is critical for processing reward. They were also associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, a complex brain region that is engaged through tasks involving valuation, judgement and moral reasoning, along with other regions associated with focused attention.

The research is part of a venture called the Religious Brain Project, launched by University of Utah researchers two years ago in an effort to learn about how the brain behaves in deeply religious and spiritual people. This is the first study carried out by the group, which says it hopes to investigate other religions further down the track.

"We would love to study other religious practices and experiences, and are continuing to design experiments," says Anderson. "We also have a great deal of information from our current study about the effects of in-group and out-group religious leaders' messages on the brain, effects of religious guilt on the brain, and specific brain networks engaged during prayer. We will continue to move these results through a rigorous peer review so we can share these as well."

The research was published in the journal Social Neuroscience.

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