Your Brain on God
Religious experiences activate certain parts of the brain, scans show.
When we think about our favorite song, or our beloved—or more darkly, when we take certain drugs—a part of the brain becomes activated. It’s an area called the nucleus accumbens, a region that processes reward. Researchers from the University of Utah have found that this same region is also activated by some spiritual feelings.
In a study published in the journal Social Neuroscience, investigators looked at what parts of the brain were involved in the spiritual feelings in a group of devout Mormons. What regions in their brains, the scientists wondered, were causing them to “feel the Spirit”?
To conduct the research, the study participants underwent fMRI scans, which looks at metabolic functioning in the brain. They were first at rest, then watched a control video that showed church statistics, listened to quotations by Mormon and other world religious leaders, read from the Book of Mormon, watched a video of family and Biblical scenes, and listened to another eight minutes of quotations. During each of these segments, they were asked to assess, “Are you feeling the Spirit?” measured from a range of “not feeling,” to “very strongly feeling.” During the participants’ peak spiritual feelings, they described sensations of warmth and peace, as if they were at an intense worship service.
Based on the fMRI scans, those powerful feelings were associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens, the brain region that processes reward, as well as the medial prefrontal cortex, which handles tasks such as value, judgment and moral reasoning. Regions associated with focused attention were also activated. The partipants’ brains weren’t the only part of the body to respond—their hearts also beat faster and breathing deepened.
“We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent,” wrote senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of radiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
“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,” wrote Anderson.
The Mormon study participants were reacting to feelings about thinking about their savior, and about being with their families for eternity, based on their religious beliefs. Researchers 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, noted Anderson, but so far little is known about the neuroscience of Western spiritual practices.
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.