Measuring the Brain on God

Brain regions became active during spiritual experience, University of Utah research found.

What do love, sex, drugs and gambling have in common with a spiritual experience?

To answer this question, researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine studied people's brains and found that all these activities activate the same areas in the brain.

This study is the first result of the Religious Brain Project--launched by University of Utah researchers in 2014. The goal of the project is to understand how the brain operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs.

The researchers found an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens--a reward processing center--was activated several seconds before the study participants reported powerful spiritual feelings. In addition, the participants' heart rates increased and breathing deepened. The reward center is also activated during activities like sex or gambling, or with substance abuse.

Lead author Michael Ferguson, PhD, carried out the study as a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah in collaboration with neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson, MD, PhD.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," Dr. Anderson said in a press release. "In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia."

Dr. Ferguson added, "When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded.”

The investigators studied 19 young adult members of the Mormon Church--seven males and 12 females. Each study participant completed an hour-long exam in which they performed tasks in response to content meant to promote spiritual feelings.

The concept of “feeling the spirit” is vitally important to devout Mormons who make many important decisions based on this concept.

During the examination, the scientists studied the participants' brains with a technique known as functional MRI (fMRI). An fMRI shows which areas of the brain are active.

The exam was divided into short segments of activities like listening to quotations from Mormon and religious leaders, and watching church-produced videos of family and Bible scenes or church membership statistics. At intervals, the researches would ask each participant, “Are you feeling the spirit?” Participants responded with a range of answers from “not feeling” to “very strongly feeling” or pressed a button when the feelings were strongest.

Detailed assessments found that study participants almost universally reported they had experienced what felt like an intense worship service with feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth.

Spiritual feelings also activated brain regions that involve moral reasoning and judgment, as well as focused attention. This is a new frontier for neuroscience research, which has previously examined how meditation and contemplation common to eastern religions affects the brain.

The study was published in the Nov. issue of Social Neuroscience.

Funding for the study was provided by the Davis Endowed Chair in Radiology, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

None of the authors reported a conflict of interest.

Read more about what scientists are learning about our human consciousness.