This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits

November 29, 2016, University of Utah Health Sciences
Several brain regions become active when devoutly religious study participants reported having a spiritual experience, including a reward circuit, the nucleus accumbens. Credit: Jeffrey Anderson

Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The findings will be published Nov. 29 in the journal Social Neuroscience.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," says senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D. "In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia."

Specifically, the investigators set out to determine which brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings in one group, devout Mormons, by creating an environment that triggered participants to "feel the Spirit." Identifying this feeling of peace and closeness with God in oneself and others is a critically important part of Mormons' lives—they make decisions based on these feelings; treat them as confirmation of doctrinal principles; and view them as a primary means of communication with the divine.

During fMRI scans, 19 young-adult church members—including seven females and 12 males—performed four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings. The hour-long exam included six minutes of rest; six minutes of audiovisual control (a video detailing their church's membership statistics); eight minutes of quotations by Mormon and world religious leaders; eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon; 12 minutes of audiovisual stimuli (church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes, and other religiously evocative content); and another eight minutes of quotations.

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, shows a new study from the University of Utah School of Medicine. Neuroscientist Jeffrey Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., explains the findings and their implications for why religion has such is a strong influence on how people make decisions. Credit: University of Utah Health Sciences

During the initial quotations portion of the exam, participants—each a former full-time missionary—were shown a series of quotes, each followed by the question "Are you feeling the spirit?" Participants responded with answers ranging from "not feeling" to "very strongly feeling."

Researchers collected detailed assessments of the feelings of participants, who, almost universally, reported experiencing the kinds of feelings typical of an intense worship service. They described feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth. Many were in tears by the end of the scan. In one experiment, participants pushed a button when they felt a peak spiritual feeling while watching church-produced stimuli.

"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," says lead author Michael Ferguson, Ph.D., who carried out the study as a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah.

Based on fMRI scans, the researchers found that powerful spiritual feelings were reproducibly associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens, a critical brain region for processing reward. Peak activity occurred about 1-3 seconds before participants pushed the button and was replicated in each of the four tasks. As participants were experiencing peak feelings, their hearts beat faster and their breathing deepened.

fMRI scans recorded brain activity as devoutly religious study participants read quotes from spiritual leaders or watched religious imagery. Credit: University of Utah Health Sciences

In addition to the brain's reward circuits, the researchers found that spiritual feelings were associated with the , which is a complex brain region that is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgment and moral reasoning. Spiritual feelings also activated brain regions associated with focused attention.

"Religious experience is perhaps the most influential part of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill. Understanding what happens in the brain to contribute to those decisions is really important," says Anderson, noting that we don't yet know if believers of other religions would respond the same way. Work by others suggests that the brain responds quite differently to meditative and contemplative practices characteristic of some eastern religions, but so far little is known about the neuroscience of western spiritual practices.

The study is the first initiative of the Religious Brain Project, launched by a group of University of Utah researchers in 2014, which aims to understand how the operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs.

Explore further: New Religious Brain Project seeks to uncover brain activation during religious and spiritual experiences

More information: Michael A. Ferguson et al, Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons, Social Neuroscience (2016). DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1257437

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4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 29, 2016
"about being with their families for eternity"

That particular thing has always bothered me a bit. How does that work, exactly? It says you'll be together with theones you love. Fine. But what if A loves B but B does not love A (which isn't that uncommon)? Is B forced to be with A for eternity? Is B forced to love A? Or is A deprived of B for eternity? Is A forced to relinquish his love for B?
3 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2016
That particular thing has always bothered me a bit.

I still, to this day, remember the sheer, mind-numbing, indescribable horror that would come over me, usually late at night, in bed, at the mere thought of eternity, when I was still religious (was a kid/teen). And I don't mean eternity in hell (I guess even I was a better person than my "god" and never could accept this vilest of all vile ideas - hell (cf. Ingersoll on this - he's so passionately brilliant on the subject of hell, it brings tears to my eyes). Just eternity, pleasant, mild eternity. I would become almost catatonic at the mere thought of no end, ever, EVER. Just going on and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on... With no freaking end. EVER.

(Just recently found out that there's a name for it: apeirophobia. http://www.theatl.../498368/ )
3 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2016
You guys omit a multiverse interpretation and implications
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2016

The absolute inability to cease to exist is indeed a cause for considerable anxiety and distress.
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 29, 2016
Humans are apparently the first species with the ability to understand that no matter what we do, we are going to grow old and die like everybody around us has done.

We perceive this as a trap, a cage. And like any other animal we abhor confinement.

This ability to remember and project is also what burdens us with guilt for what we've done in the past, and with the desire for retribution against our transgressors.

The unique and oppressive nature of these burdens cannot be overemphasized. We have been selected over 1000s of gens for our ability to remember, imagine, and project as these abilities enable us to formulate effective strategies against our enemies. But at the same time they are a source of unending anxiety and pain.
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 29, 2016
So along comes a grieving widow or an old man desperate to offer something of value to the tribe. They tell stories of the dead who somehow did not die and are waiting to greet us when we do.

And the relief is so great that they don't even have to offer any evidence that this can happen. All they have to do is tell the story with sufficient sincerity and conviction, and perhaps include a little voodoo, and the people will believe.

And voila! a new meme is born. Priests and priestesses build temples and burn incense and venerate shriveled body parts to increase the otherworldly effect, and the people are saved from the terror of their inevitable conclusions.

And to increase the efficacy of the meme, the flock is culled over 1000s of gens for their ability to reject their reason and the evidence of their senses in favor of faith.

And so we can understand the mechanism has actually sickened the human race through this process of very unnatural selection; of domestication.
3.6 / 5 (5) Nov 29, 2016
The absolute inability to cease to exist is indeed a cause for considerable anxiety and distress
"9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet[a] no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end." Ecc3

-I am always AMAZED at how the priests who wrote the bible tell us exactly what they do and why they are doing it. It's not even poetry. Just statement of fact.

They were never concerned with what might happen after you die. They were wholly concerned with what you thought and did in this life.
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2016
Religious discussions on a science forum, blah blah.
2 / 5 (6) Nov 29, 2016
Hmmm. My religious ideas are not those I see reflected in the tests and I do have a deep faith.
It is most interesting to see an attempt at scientific study of spiritual matters. Of course, you must have it to recognize it. Like asking a virgin for sex advice. Meh.

I have no religious/science conflict. I am not offended by scientific discoveries or inquiries.
I am amused at what passes as religion for many.
It isn't something you 'believe' it is something you live, if you have it. I am entertained by how so many are offended by religion. That is ok too. Atheism itself is clearly a religion. Gasp. That's right. I too feel animosity towards some religious beliefs because they conflict with my own. Atheists should bear this in mind. I see plenty of atheistic outrage here. It changes nothing. It is a waste of useful anger. Channel that energy.

1 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2016
its too focused on moroms...
1 / 5 (2) Nov 29, 2016
The simple explanation of eternity is that there is no death- meaning that consciousness survives the end of the physical body. The cooptation by various religious groups of a basic biological process doesn't negate the fact that when the body expires, one will find their consciousness in a different dimension. One doesn't need to believe in a deity to accept this knowledge.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2016
"doesn't negate the fact that when the body expires, one will find their consciousness in a different dimension."

Fact? Since when is this a fact? Can I fact-check this? How?
It's all fine and dandy that you believe this (and other) claptrap - but don't be ridiculous and call these fairytales 'fact'.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 30, 2016
It is no surprise that religiosity is a deeply selfish behavior, likely addictive.

The same can be said for constructive goal seeking of course, getting the reward when one "is getting it".

Statistics says the main difference is social (dysfunctional vs functional societies).
5 / 5 (2) Nov 30, 2016
@OA: "It is most interesting to see an attempt at scientific study of spiritual matters. Of course, you must have it to recognize it,"

That dogmatic falsehood - that religiosity has to be experienced to be understood, combined with that it isn't enough to once have been religious to attempt to shut out everyone else - is a favorite among the religious. But you really take the cake by insisting that religiosity can be objectively studied, but that it is purely subjective, in two consecutive sentences.

That religious dogma is so blatantly inconsistent for everyone else, but religiosity blinds people to that aspect of themselves (and of our reality, i.e. that it isn't true).
5 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2016
Hi tk :)
The simple explanation of eternity is that there is no death- meaning that consciousness survives the end of the physical body. The cooptation by various religious groups of a basic biological process doesn't negate the fact that when the body expires, one will find their consciousness in a different dimension. One doesn't need to believe in a deity to accept this knowledge.
Did your alien friends tell you this?
not rated yet Nov 30, 2016
No, Ghost, I haven't received any messages from my alien friends in a while, but I assume that your Nazi heroes have assisted you in forming most if not all of your perceptions.
And you, anti-alias, with your smug all-knowingness, know virtually nothing about science or physics, which have corroborated other dimensions and universes. Your rigidity blinds you to phenomena that's been experienced by others, and like the Spanish Inquisition, your reflex to dismiss everything as heresy based only on your own experience or lack thereof makes you appear ignorant and unscientific.
not rated yet Dec 05, 2016
In the world of computers, the great progress was the ability to store data and instructions in memory. The instruction could then make changes to the data. In fact, the instructions could even modify themselves. (We call this last situation AI) Computers have no "pleasure/pain" centers, but people do. Thus it is no surprise that people modify their data and instructions to experience pleasure and avoid pain. TheGhostofOtto1923 makes a good discussion of how and why this is so. The article (above) identifies and measures this cause/effect in a select and highly religious group.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

In the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is despised.

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