BY: SAMANTHA TAPP
The relentless battle between science and religion is one that may never end. But a new study is combining the two to try and answer questions that have been around for millennia. The results mean science and religion can finally agree on something: the human brain. Researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine determined that religious and spiritual experiences activate reward circuits in the brain similar to how the brain reacts when we fall in love, have sex, gamble, listen to music and do drugs.
The researchers’ goal was to determine which brain networks are activated when spiritual feelings are triggered. The study was performed with a group of passionate Mormons; chosen specifically because having religious feelings of peace and closeness with God is an essential part a of Mormon’s life. In fact, they treat these feelings as a confirmation of their religious ethics; they make decisions based on these feelings; and interpret them as their main way to communicate with God.
“Religious experience is perhaps the most influential part of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill,” said Jeff Anderson, neuoradiologist and senior author of the study.
To conduct the research, the researchers created an environment in hopes of triggering participants to ‘feel the Spirit,’ which refers to feeling close to God. Over the span of an hour participants performed assignments meant to awaken spiritual feelings. During these tasks they were asked if they were ‘feeling the spirit,’ while watching videos of Biblical scenes and listening to Biblical readings.
The participants almost unanimously reported experiencing spiritual feelings similar to those in an intense worship service. Feeling peaceful, physical sensations of warmth and even coming to tears, were similar reactions across the board.
The results of the scans found that the powerful spiritual feelings activated the nucleus accumbens, which is an essential region in the brain for processing reward. Take for example, sex. According to Harvard Health Publications, when a human performs a satisfying action or fulfills a desire, pleasure is produced through the nucleus accumbens. Or consider drugs. Addictive drugs create a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. Specifically, researchers have seen the nucleus accumbens light up when cocaine addicts are merely offered a line.
Along with the brain’s reward circuits, the research found that the spiritual feelings were linked to the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved with cognitive functions like reasoning and judgement. This connection suggests that spiritual experiences are somewhat produced by conscious judgment. In other words, it means religious people actively choose and are aware of their beliefs.
Notably, the researchers said that the results of this study do not mean that spiritual members of other religions would respond the same way. Due to the vast difference between different cultures and religions, it is likely that there the brain responds differently to other practices.