Religious thoughts trigger reward systems like love, drugs

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, as shown in this MRI from the University of Utah Health Sciences

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, as shown in this MRI from the University of Utah Health Sciences

Most Americans, about 89%, say they believe in God, and some have felt God’s presence while listening to a sermon or sensed time stand still while they were in deep prayer or meditation.

Now, a new study shows through functional MRI scans that such religious and spiritual experiences can be rewarding to your brain.

They activate the same reward systems between your ears as do feelings of love, being moved by music and even doing drugs, according to the study, which was published in the journal Social Neuroscience on Tuesday.

“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.

“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.”

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, and 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; and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci, associated with moral reasoning, Anderson said.

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, as shown in this MRI. Courtesy of the University of Utah Health Sciences

“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 University who 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.

“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,” 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.

Since the study results were seen only in Mormons, Anderson said, more research is needed to determine whether similar findings could be replicated in people of other faiths, such as Catholics or Muslims.

“I think that it’s still an open question, to what extent there is a common network of brain regions that is active across faith traditions and types of experiences. We expect that there are differences,” he said. “In other words, does it feel the same way in the same regions of the brain for a Lutheran woman in Minnesota studying the Bible as for someone in Syria contemplating religiously motivated violence?”

More research is also needed to determine the potential health benefits of such experiences, Anderson said.

The scientific literature on health-related effects of spiritual experiences is growing, said Newberg, who wrote the book “How God Changes Your Brain.”

“Generally, religious and spiritual beliefs and practices reduce depression, stress and anxiety and provide people a sense of meaning and purpose,” he said.

“Additionally, it is also important to understand the potential negative consequences,” he said. “For example, would this study yield similar or different results if the subjects were members of ISIS and provided religious quotes and videos supporting those beliefs? That could be a fascinating study.”

‘This is one of the things that make us human’

Reward systems in the brain might activate during religious or spiritual experiences in part because they reinforce whatever faith-based beliefs you may have, said Jordan Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and a professor at Northwestern University.

“Reinforcing your beliefs makes you feel a little bit better and secure,” said Grafman, who was not involved in the new study.

He added that studying religious beliefs can reveal a lot about the human brain.

“Well, this is one of the things that make us human, right?” Grafman asked.

“There are not too many other species, as far as we know about, that have a religion,” he said. “If you’re simply interested in what distinguishes us as creatures, this is a great example, and that’s why it’s important to study the brain basis, not only of how religion affects the brain, but the brain basis of religious beliefs and how that corresponds to other kinds of cognitive processes.”