Although religious experience impacts more than 5.8 billion people worldwide, our understanding of the brain networks involved remains obscure. In a study published today in the journal Social Neuroscience, researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine report that religious and spiritual experiences activate reward circuits in the brain — the same that are associated with feelings of love and drug-induced euphoric states.
Researchers used fMRI to image the brain’s electrical activity while spiritual feelings were evoked in participants inside the scanner. 19 young devout Mormons, 12 males and 7 females, who were all former full-time missionaries, were chosen because of the intensity of their routine religious experience—known as “feeling the spirit.” A key part of being Mormon involves identifying this experience in oneself and teaching this ability to new converts. Followers of the faith make decisions based on these feelings and view them as a way to communicate with God. This made them the ideal choice for a study aimed at uncovering the specific neural circuits involved with religious experience.
To trigger these religious feelings, participants were given four tasks over the course of an hour while their brains were scanned. The exercises were designed to emulate the Mormon religious experience, and included prayer, scripture study, audiovisual presentations of religious music with images of Biblical scenes and other strongly religious content, and quotes from church leaders. To make sure only the images of brain states associated with intense religious experience were captured, participants were intermittently asked to give subjective ratings, with responses to “Are you feeling the spirit?” ranging from “not feeling” to “very strongly feeling.”
The tasks were highly effective, as many participants were actually brought to tears during the session. Detailed first-person assessments showed that feelings of inner peace and physical sensations of warmth were common. Overall, the feelings evoked were described as similar to those experienced during a typical intense worship service.
The lead investigator on the project, Dr. Michael Ferguson, said, “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.”
In addition to elevating heart rate and deepening breathing, the brain imaging data revealed that religious and spiritual experiences consistently activated electrical brain patterns in multiple regions, including the nucleus accumbens, which is a central part of the brain’s reward and reinforcement system. Activation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex was also observed, a brain area involved in many complex functions, including decision-making and emotion regulation. Frontal attentional regions were also active, which play a role in alertness and focused attention.
The real insight of the study is that religious experience involves the interaction between these three brain systems. The reward system, which is also activated by love, sex, and addictive drugs, is associated with euphoric states. Pleasurable sensations evoked by spiritual feelings are likely heightened by focused attention and emotion salience processing mechanisms. The results suggest that co-activation of these networks creates a larger mechanism whereby spiritual experience can become rewarding, thus motivating religious-driven behavior and decision-making.
This can create an addiction to religious experience, which may lead to extremism and an unhealthy attachment to religious leaders. This is no light matter, as religious extremism could potentially be more destructive to one’s life and well being than certain drug habits. On the other hand, like some psychoactive substances and romantic love, strong spiritual experience may offer internal peace and joy, a meaningful connection to others and the surrounding world, and an overall enhanced quality of life.
It is important to note that these findings pertain to western religious experience, as many eastern religious practices are more meditative and contemplative in nature, and may involve different brain pathways.
Bobby Azarian is a freelance science writer with a PhD in neuroscience. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and he has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC, Scientific American, Psychology Today, Slate, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and others. He is the creator of the blog Science Is Sexy. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.