Spiritual and meditational experiences have long been touted to instill calm, peace and serenity in the faithful. Thanks to advanced brain imaging techniques, we can now study exactly how it does so. In a new project, titled Religious Brain Project, scientists at University of Utah have discovered that spirituality activates brain reward system in the same way sex, gambling, music and drugs do.
The study was led by neuro-radiologist Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D, from the University Of Utah School Of Medicine in USA. The scientists initially created an environment to trigger participants to experience spiritual thoughts so that they could determine which brain areas are involved in making religious people feel spiritual.
To better understand the brain processing, functional-magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans were performed on 44 devout Mormon participants, out of which 12 were male, and no person was older than 40 years of age. They were chosen on the basis of frequency of worship service attendance and private devotional practice and all 44 of participants had also completed at least 2 years of missionary service at the Mormon Church.
The participants were given certain tasks to do to arouse spiritual feelings. The tasks included listening and watching to a religious conference, viewing religious quotations from notable religious people, praying for 6 minutes according to devotional practice and scripture reading while taking a few minutes of rest in between. The participants also had to repeat some of the tasks.
The fMRI showed that these tasks activated the left and right nucleus accumbens, mostly due to the task involving audiovisual stimuli. In addition, the medial prefrontal cortex, a complex brain region, was also activated involving judgement and moral reasoning while other regions were also activated due to experiencing spirituality.
Jeff Anderson notes that they don’t know whether people of other religions would respond in the same way. He says, “We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent.”
He adds, “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.”
The imaging of the brain functions indicated a certain “feeling the Spirit” emotion across the tasks they were given, especially when viewing quotations or reading scripture. In addition, the reward part of the brain was visibly activated, indicating a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.
The study was published in Taylor and Francis Online on 29th November, 2016.
Do Spirituality, Drugs, Sex, Music And Gambling Share The Same Brain Reward Pathway?
The reward circuit of the brain is activated in many ways and is unbothered by the type of reward offered. Which is why everything from narcotics to hedonism and idealism is accepted as a pathway by the brain to turn on the reward system. The underlying fact remains that pleasure is detected and felt regardless of the external stimuli offered to the brain, where the external stimuli may only be contained or tolerated due to the moralistic values retained in the subconscious.
The reward system does not lie in one specific region of the brain, rather it is formed by a number of different structures including the orbitofrontal cortex, ventral striatum, ventral pallidum, anterior cingulate cortex, thalamus, hypothalamus, midbrain and habenula.
Scientists have long indicated that cultural and theistic traditions are related to an elevated mood and a sense of satisfaction with oneself which are similar to romantic feelings and semi-subconscious feelings of euphoria due to drugs, suggesting common neural pathways associated with all these experiences. But among these stimuli, religious experiences contribute to the establishment of social systems with consequences for both pro and anti-social behaviors.
Certain studies related to epilepsy and schizophrenia arising from religiosity suggests that religious experiences arise from temporal lobes structures of the brain. Other studies indicate that religious experience involves the collective collaboration of amygdala, ventral striatum and temporal and frontal cortex.
In addition, there is evidence that the caudate head is activated during prayer, religious activities that require concentration and recollection of a mystical or supernatural experience.
These studies identify the accepted brain regions involved in religious experiences. However, religious experience also involves emotion, language, attention, memory, arousal, and moral cognition which cannot be pinpointed to one certain aspect of brain functioning.
Should Spiritual Healing Be A Part Of Clinical Care?
The benefits of spirituality are many. Medical practices around the world have started to understand the importance of spirituality and its aspects in clinical care. Although health professionalism is followed strictly by a certain code learned by health experts and doctors, spirituality remains a sacred devotion of many people and is linked with deeply personal feelings.
In a report, the World Health Organization confirms that “Until recently the health professions have largely followed a medical model, which seeks to treat patients by focusing on medicines and surgery, and gives less importance to beliefs and to faith—in healing, in the physician and in the doctor-patient relationship. This reductionist or mechanistic view of patients is no longer satisfactory.
“Patients and physicians have begun to realise the value of elements such as faith, hope, and compassion in the healing process.”