Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, a new study has claimed.
Researchers at the University of Utah in the US specifically 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 Mormon's 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, researchers said.
"We are just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," said Jeff Anderson from University of Utah.
"In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia," said Anderson.
During the functional magnetic resonance imaging (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.
It also included 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.
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 saviour, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded," said lead author Michael Ferguson from University of Utah.
The study was published in the journal Social Neuroscience.
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