Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in your brain

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Peggy (my co-blogger) are so fascinated by neuroscience we have an entire blog MaxyourMIND devoted to brain research and how it impacts our physical, emotional and mental well-being.  My other fascination, and may I say “devotion”, is spirituality and sometimes neuroscience and spirituality intersect.  A study* shows through functional MRI scans that such religious and spiritual experiences can be rewarding to your brain.

Religious and spiritual experiences activate the same reward systems between your ears as do feelings of love, being moved by music and even doing drugs. 

“Billions of people make important decisions in life based on spiritual and religious feelings and experiences. It’s one of the most powerful influences on our social behavior,” he said. “Yet we know so little about what actually happens in the brain during these experiences. It’s just a critical question that needs more study.”

The Study:  Mulling over Mormon MRIs

For the study, 19 devout young adult Mormons had their brains scanned in fMRI machines while they completed various tasks.

The tasks included:

  • Resting for six minutes
  • Watching a six-minute church announcement about membership and financial reports
  • Reading quotations from religious leaders for eight minutes
  • Engaging in prayer for six minutes
  • Reading scripture for eight minutes
  • Watching videos of religious speeches, renderings of biblical scenes and church member testimonials.

During the tasks, participants were asked to indicate when they were experiencing spiritual feelings.

As the researchers analyzed the fMRI scans taken of the participants, they took a close look at the degree of spiritual feelings each person reported and then which brain regions were simultaneously activated.

The researchers found that certain brain regions consistently lit up when the participants reported spiritual feelings.

“The brain regions included:

  • the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward
  • frontal attentional, which is associated with focused attention
  • ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci, associated with moral reasoning

“I appreciated how they went about trying to ascertain the degree of spiritual experience that a person has. Of course, there is always a subjective component to it, but they seemed to capture it relatively well,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neurotheologian and professor of emergency medicine and radiology at Thomas Jefferson Universitywho was not involved in the study.”

“He added that the new study further supports previous research that has associated spiritual and religious experiences with complex neural networks.”

“Since the study results were seen only in Mormons, more research is needed to determine whether similar findings could be replicated in people of other faiths, such as Catholics, Muslims Protestants, Bahai’s, and Christian Evangelicals.

“These are areas of the brain that seem like they should be involved in religious and spiritual experience. But yet, religious neuroscience is such a young field — and there are very few studies — and ours was the first study that showed activation of the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain that processes reward,” said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a neuroradiologist at the University of Utah and lead author of the study.

“It is also interesting to see the changes occurring in the frontal attentional areas and the nucleus accumbens. These are actually areas we have hypothesized to be involved in religious practices and experiences over 10 years ago,” Dr Andrew Newberg said.

“It also corroborates our prior studies of various prayer and meditation practices that found changes in the attentional areas of the brain and also the striatum,” a part of the brain associated with the reward system.

*Social Neuroscience Journal Courtesy of the University of Utah Health Sciences


This post originally appeared on The HeART of Spirituality Click here for more

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