Study finds that religious and spiritual experiences activate Mormon’s brain reward mechanisms

According to findings from a new study, spiritual and religious experiences trigger the brain’s reward circuits in the same way that music, drugs, gambling, sex, and love do.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Utah School of Medicine, showed that “feeling the spirit,” a religious experience among Latter-day Saints, was linked to brain activation in regions such as the frontal attentional, ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci, and nucleus accumbens.

These are the same regions linked to reward mechanisms. It was also observed the activation of these regions was succeeded by what the participants referred to as “spiritual feelings.”

The study was published in the journal Social Neuroscience on November 29, 2016.

According to Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D. and the author of the study, the study allowed researchers to take a look at how the brain reacted to spiritual or divine experiences for the first time. Anderson added this was made possible due to the developments that have occurred with regard to brain imaging technology.

The specific focus of the study was to see which of the brain networks were actively involved in spiritual emotions. To determine this, the study was carried out on a group of LDS members known to be exceptionally devout. The subjects were placed in an environment that would trigger a spiritual experience; in this case, “Feeling the Spirit,” as normally referred to by the Mormons.

For Mormons, “feeling the spirit” is described as a sensation of closeness and peace with God and it plays a key role in the religious lives of Mormons. In fact, members of the religious sect even make decisions on this experience and consider it as a form of communication with the divine.

For the study, the LDS subjects had to carry out four tasks that involved responses to religious content that was designed to evoke spiritual feelings. This included reading Mormon quotations, reading passages from the Book of Mormon, watching and listening to audio-visual content, and even taking rest.

After completing the tasks, the subjects reported, unanimously, they experienced emotions similar to what they experience during a typical worship service.

MRI scans showed that the brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens, which are linked to reward mechanisms, were activated within seconds of each task being executed. The subjects were also observed to have faster heartbeats and deeper breathing.

The medial prefrontal cortex region of the brain was also observed as showing activity. This region is associated with moral reasoning, evaluation, and judgment. Even brain regions linked to better focus and attention got activated.

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