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Spiritual mind: What a religious experience looks like in the brain

A picture of the brain areas activated when an individual experiences spiritual feelings.

People who have had “a religious experience”, often feelings of joy, peace, and warmth, and new research has shown that during these experiences, certain reward centres in the brain are activated.

The study found that, under the strict religious people, spiritual feelings activate the same areas of the brain as well as the other rewarding and enjoyable experiences, such as love, sex, and drugs.

“We have only just begun to understand how the brain takes part in the experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine, or transcendent,” study co-author Dr. Jeff Anderson, a neuroradiologist at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said in a statement . “In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in a way that is letting us approach the questions that have been around for thousands of years.”

In the study, the researchers analyzed the brains of 19 faithful Mormons in their 20s and 30s who had completed 1.5 to two years of missionary work for the Mormon Church.

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The participants spent an hour in a brain scanner, and were shown quotes and videos intended to evoke spiritual feelings. For example, participants were shown passages from the Book of Mormon, and videos produced by the Lds Church. They were also asked to pray in the scanner for 6 minutes. At various points during the session, participants were asked: “do you feel the spirit?” (This is an expression that is used in the Mormon Church to refer to feelings of religious joy.) The responses ranged from “not good” to “very strong feeling.”

The results showed that the “feeling the spirit” in connection with the activation of the nucleus accumbens, a brain region that is involved in processing feelings of reward . This activation peak of approximately 1 to 3 seconds before the participants said they were experiencing peak spiritual feelings (which they indicated with a press of a button).

Spiritual feelings were also associated with the activation of a region called the medial prefrontal cortex, which is believed to be involved in the judgment and moral reasoning, and activation of brain regions associated with increased attention and alertness.

The researchers noted that more studies, including ones that look at people from different religions and cultures, are needed to determine other brain areas linked with religious experiences.

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