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Your Brain On God: Religious Experiences Trigger Brain's Reward System Like Drugs

First Posted: Nov 30, 2016 03:18 AM EST
Prayer
Religious practices and experiences trigger the reward circuit in the brain just as love and drugs do.
(Photo : Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Researchers found that religious or spiritual experiences trigger the brain's reward system in the same way that love, sex, drugs and music do.

In a new study published in the journal Social Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Utah School of Medicine found that prayers and other religious experiences activate the brain reward systems. They scanned the brains of 19 Mormons when they were reading religious texts and reported spiritual feelings of closeness to the spirit.

The Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans showed an activation nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain that processes rewards and has been linked to feelings of addictions like drugs and gambling and feelings of romantic love.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," Jeff Anderson, senior author of the study, said in a press release by the University of Utah School of Medicine.

"In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia," he added.

Almost all of the participants said they had experienced feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth during the experiment. By the end of the scam, many of the Mormon missionaries became tearful.

"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," Michael Ferguson, co-author of the study, said in the press statement.

Apart from the brain's reward circuits, the study found that spiritual feelings are linked to the medical prefrontal cortex, the brain region processing valuation, judgment and moral reasoning. Despite the fact that the study cannot establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, the spiritual feeling also increased the activity of the brain associated with focused attention.

However, some people could be more prone to being affected by religion in this way than others.

"For example, activity in the insula during spiritual experiences varied across individuals, and these differences in activity correlated with moral values reported by those same individuals in questionnaires after the study," Anderson told ResearchGate.

"We expect that the differences from individual to an individual may tell us about how different people and groups may differ in their perception of spiritual feelings," he added.

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