Religious and spiritual experiences affect the brain in a very similar way to sex, drugs, music, love and gambling.
That’s one of the extraordinary findings in a new study of the brain reward circuits of devout Mormons.
“We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent,” said senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson.
“In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”
Feelings of peace and closeness with God in oneself and others is a key part of Mormon life and many Mormons’ decision making.
Researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine created a series of tests that led participants to “feel the spirit”.
During hour long fMRI scans, 19 young-adult church members (seven female and 12 male), each a former missionary, were tasked with watching and listening to spiritual materials.
This included, among other prompts, 16 minutes of quotations by Mormon and religious leaders, eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon, 12 minutes of church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes.
After each short session, participants were asked how spiritual they felt. By the end of the scan, many were in tears, while almost all participants experienced feelings typical of an intense worship.
“When our study participants were instructed to think about a saviour, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,” said lead author Michael Ferguson, a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah.
The most interesting insight is that powerful spiritual feelings were “reproducibly associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens”.
That’s the region of the brain which processes reward, including when people have sex, listen to music or take drugs.
In one of the experiments, participants were asked to push a button when they felt peak spiritual feeling.
According to the scans, peak activity in the brain’s reward centre typically occurred 1-3 seconds beforehand. Similar patterns were spotted in each test.
Participants hearts also beat faster and their breathing deepened, during these periods of heightened spiritual feeling.
Beyond the reward circuits, researchers also found that spiritual feelings had an impact on the part of the brain activated during valuation, judgement and moral reasoning – the medial prefrontal cortex – and regions associated with focused attention.
“Religious experience is perhaps the most influential part of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill. Understanding what happens in the brain to contribute to those decisions is really important,” said Anderson.
He added that we don’t yet know if believers of other western spiritual practices would respond the same way.
However, other studies indicate that the brain responds differently to meditation and contemplation commonly found in eastern religions.
Utah’s study was published in the journal Social Neuroscience.