This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuitsNovember 29, 2016
SALT LAKE CITY - 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.
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.
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.
"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 brain operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs.
The study was funded by the Davis Endowed Chair in Radiology at the University of Utah, and the National Institute of Mental Health, and published as "Reward, Salience, and Attentional Networks are Activated by Religious Experience in Devout Mormons" in Social Neuroscience on Nov. 29, 2016.
University of Utah Health Sciences
Related Brain Articles:
Researchers compared the thickness of brain cortex in patients with brain tumors before and after radiation therapy was applied and found significant dose-dependent changes in the structural properties of cortical neural networks, at both the local and global level.
Using a sophisticated type of mathematics in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.
Researchers have developed a new device to map the brain during surgery and distinguish between healthy and diseased tissues.
Scientists have today published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies' brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops.
A new test using peripheral vision reaction time could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment of mild traumatic brain injury, often referred to as a concussion.
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.
'Practice makes perfect' is a common saying. We all have experienced that the initially effortful implementation of novel tasks is becoming rapidly easier and more fluent after only a few repetitions.
A team of scientists has extended the balanced network model to provide deep and testable predictions linking brain circuits to brain activity.
Spikes in neuronal activity in young mice do not spur corresponding boosts in blood flow -- a discovery that stands in stark contrast to the adult mouse brain.
The brains of teenagers with serious antisocial behavior problems differ significantly in structure to those of their peers, providing the clearest evidence to date that their behavior stems from changes in brain development in early life, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton, in collaboration with the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy.
Related Brain Reading:
The Brain: The Story of You
by David Eagleman (Author)
Locked in the silence and darkness of your skull, your brain fashions the rich narratives of your reality and your identity. Join renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman for a journey into the questions at the mysterious heart of our existence. What is reality? Who are “you”? How do you make decisions? Why does your brain need other people? How is technology poised to change what it means to be human? In the course of his investigations, Eagleman guides us through the world of extreme sports, criminal justice, facial expressions, genocide, brain surgery, gut feelings, robotics, and the... View Details
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
by Norman Doidge (Author)
An astonishing new science called "neuroplasticity" is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable. In this revolutionary look at the brain, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, M.D., provides an introduction to both the brilliant scientists championing neuroplasticity and the people whose lives they've transformed. From stroke patients learning to speak again to the remarkable case of a woman born with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, The Brain That Changes Itself will permanently alter the way we look at our brains, human... View Details
Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life
by David Perlmutter (Author), Kristin Loberg (Contributor)
The bestselling author of Grain Brain uncovers the powerful role of gut bacteria in determining your brain's destiny.
Debilitating brain disorders are on the rise-from children diagnosed with autism and ADHD to adults developing dementia at younger ages than ever before. But a medical revolution is underway that can solve this problem: Astonishing new research is revealing that the health of your brain is, to an extraordinary degree, dictated by the state of your microbiome - the vast population of organisms that live in your body and outnumber your own cells... View Details
Brain Games: Big Book of Boredom Busters (Activity Books)
by Stephanie Warren Drimmer (Author), Gareth Moore (Author)
Packed with science, puzzles, and tons of fun, this activity book based on the hit National Geographic television show will fire up your neural network!
Calling all fans of the Brain Games TV show! Excercise your mental muscle with awesome challenges, wacky logic puzzles, optical illusions, and brain-busting riddles. Write-in pages include both games and short explanations of the neuroscience at work. Have fun and challenge yourself as you unleash your inner creativity and become the genius we all know you are.
The activity book is a companion to the popular... View Details
Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
by John Medina (Author)
Most of us have no idea what’s really going on inside our heads. Yet brain scientists have uncovered details every business leader, parent, and teacher should knowlike the need for physical activity to get your brain working its best.
How do we learn? What exactly do sleep and stress do to our brains? Why is multi-tasking a myth? Why is it so easy to forgetand so important to repeat new knowledge? Is it true that men and women have different brains?
In Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina, a molecular biologist, shares his lifelong interest in how the brain sciences might... View Details
Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health
by Dr. Caroline Leaf (Author)
According to researchers, the vast majority--a whopping 75-98 percent--of the illnesses that plague us today are a direct result of our thought life. What we think about truly affects us both physically and emotionally. In fact, fear alone triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses in our bodies, activating more than thirty different hormones! Today our culture is undergoing an epidemic of toxic thoughts that, left unchecked, create ideal conditions for illnesses.
Supported by current scientific and medical research, Dr. Caroline Leaf gives readers a prescription... View Details
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan (Author)
An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity.
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent,... View Details
Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
by Rick Hanson (Author), Richard Mendius (Collaborator)
If you change your brain, you can change your life.
Great teachers like the Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, and Gandhi were all born with brains built essentially like anyone else’s―and then they changed their brains in ways that changed the world. Science is now revealing how the flow of thoughts actually sculpts the brain, and more and more, we are learning that it's possible to strengthen positive brain states.
By combining breakthroughs in neuroscience with insights from thousands of years of mindfulness practice, you too can use your mind to shape your brain for... View Details
The Human Brain Coloring Book (Coloring Concepts Series)
by Marian C. Diamond (Author), Arnold B Scheibel (Author)
The Human Brain Coloring Book provides a means of learning about the structure and function of the human brain, through a process of coloring-by-directions (directed coloring). It was developed by internationally recognized neuroscientists and teachers marian C. Diamond and Arnold B. Scheibel in association with highly acclaimed teacher and anatomist Lawrence M. Elson, creator of Coloring Concepts, this book is designed for a wide range of users: informal learners, students of psychology and the biological sciences, medical, dental, nursing, and other healthp rofessional students, and... View Details
The Human Brain Book
by Rita Carter (Author)
Combining the latest findings from neuroscience with new brain imaging techniques, as well as developments on infant brains, telepathy, and brain modification, this new edition of DK's The Human Brain Book covers brain anatomy, function, and disorders in unprecedented detail.
With its unique 22-page atlas, illustrated with MRI scans, and an interactive DVD, The Human Brain Book is a perfect resource for families, students, or anyone interested in human biology, anatomy, and neuroscience.View Details