The brains of spiritual people are stimulated in a similar way to the desires of enjoying drugs, music, gambling and sex, scientists revealed. Researchers used MRI scans to look into the brains of Mormons experiencing religious ecstasy to uncover their findings. The results, are a part of the Religious Brain Project, which aims to understand how the brain operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs.
Scientists from the University of Utah in the U.S. enlisted 19 mormon teenagers to take part in an hour long study. The scientists recorded their reactions and studied the parts of the brain that became stimulated.
This included six minutes of rest, six minutes of 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 church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes and another eight minutes of quotations.
According to the study, the brain became active when devoutly religious study participants reported having a spiritual experience. Bioengineer Dr Michael Ferguson, who led the study explained- “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.”
The seven women and 12 men, all former missionaries, were shown videos related to their religion and were told to press a button when they ‘felt the Spirit’. When they pushed the button, their brain responses were recorded using MRI scans and their heart and breathing rates was also recorded.
The scans revealed that when the teenagers felt connected to God, an area of their brain called the nucleus accumbens was activated. Drugs such as ecstasy also stimulate the nucleus accumbens, known as the brain’s “reward center”. Peak activity in the nucleus accumbens occurred about one to three seconds before participants pushed the button. The participants also started breathing more heavily and their hearts started beating faster.
The team also discovered that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, which is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgement and moral reasoning. Their connection to religion also activated brain regions associated with focused attention.
Neuroradiologist Dr Jeff Anderson, who also led the study, said: “We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent. In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”