A new study using fMRI brain scanning has revealed that religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music. Investigators set out to determine which brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings in devout Mormons, by creating an environment that triggered participants to “feel the Spirit.” During the fMRI scans of 19 young-adult church members universally reported experiencing the kinds of feelings typical of an intense worship service.
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.
In addition to the brain’s reward circuits, the researchers found that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, 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.
To read an interview with the principal research click here.
Te read the full research paper click here