According to a new study, the religious experience has a similar effect on the brain as drugs.
University of Utah scientists used MRI scans to monitor the brain activity of 19 devout Mormons as they carried out a variety of tasks including relaxing, listening to church announcements, praying, reading quotations from non-Mormon religious leaders, and reading the Bible.
The study’s subjects – seven women and 12 men – had all carried out the one or two years of missionary work that members of the faith are sometimes required to undertake. As the participants performed the tasks, they were instructed to press a button when they “felt the spirit.”
From Science Alert:
Almost universally, they reported a response similar to an intense worship service, including feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth. Many were in tears by the end of the scan, the researchers note.
Their brains were being scanned the whole time, and the results showed an interesting pattern. The regions that lit up were part of the reward circuit of the brain, which researchers also know is stimulated by things like drugs, junk food, and sex.
This part of the brain is known as the nucleus accumbens, which is also referred to as the ‘reward centre’, because it controls feelings of addiction and plays a role in the release of the ‘feel-good’ hormone dopamine.
“These are areas of the brain that seem like they should be involved in religious and spiritual experience,” Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, the neuroradiologist who led the study, told CNN.
“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,” he added.
Science Alert noted that the study was small and only examined one religion.
…we have no evidence as yet if the brains of people in other religions would react in the same way.
Featured image: Daniel Limpi/Eyeem