U of U Study: Religious thoughts trigger same reward systems as love, drugs, music and sex – fox13now.com

 In Health

Most Americans, about 89%, say they believe in God, and some have felt God’s presence while listening to a sermon or sensed time stand still while they were in deep prayer or meditation.

Now, a new study shows through functional MRI scans that such religious and spiritual experiences can be rewarding to your brain.

They activate the same reward systems between your ears as do feelings of love, being moved by music, using drugs, gambling and sex, according to the study, which was published in the journal Social Neuroscience on Tuesday.

Read the full study from the University of Utah here.

University of Utah researchers put 19 participants through religious experiences during an MRI scan.

University of Utah researchers put 19 participants through religious experiences during an MRI scan.

“These are areas of the brain that seem like they should be involved in religious and spiritual experience. 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,” said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a neuroradiologist at the University of Utah and lead author of the study.

“Billions of people make important decisions in life based on spiritual and religious feelings and experiences. It’s one of the most powerful influences on our social behavior,” he said. “Yet we know so little about what actually happens in the brain during these experiences. It’s just a critical question that needs more study.”

This is your brain on God: Read the full study from the University of Utah here.

Mulling over Mormon MRIs  

For the study, 19 devout young adult members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had their brains scanned in fMRI machines while they completed various tasks.

In this story

  • LDS church members’ brains were scanned as they felt spiritual experiences.
  • The scans showed these experiences activated reward systems in the brain similar to those from sex, drugs and music.

The tasks included resting for six minutes, watching a six-minute church announcement about membership and financial reports, reading quotations from religious leaders for eight minutes, engaging in prayer for six minutes, reading scripture for eight minutes, and watching videos of religious speeches, renderings of biblical scenes and church member testimonials.

During the tasks, participants were asked to indicate when they were experiencing spiritual feelings.

As the researchers analyzed the fMRI scans taken of the participants, they took a close look at the degree of spiritual feelings each person reported and then which brain regions were simultaneously activated.

The researchers found that certain brain regions consistently lit up when the participants reported spiritual feelings.

The brain regions included the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward; frontal attentional, which is associated with focused attention; and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci, associated with moral reasoning, Anderson said.

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, as shown in this MRI from the University of Utah Health Sciences

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, as shown in this MRI from the University of Utah Health Sciences

“I appreciated how they went about trying to ascertain the degree of spiritual experience that a person has. Of course, there is always a subjective component to it, but they seemed to capture it relatively well,” said Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neurotheologian and professor of emergency medicine and radiology at Thomas Jefferson University who was not involved in the study.

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