Scientist Discover Spiritual Experiences Activate Brain Reward Circuits in the Same Way as Sex, Drugs or Music


Researchers at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine report that spiritual and religious experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as sex, love, gambling, music and drugs.

Senior author and neuro-radiologist, Jeff Anderson, explains that brain-imaging technologies have matured in the last few years. This allows scientists to approach questions that have been around for millennia and they are only now beginning to understand how the brain takes part in experiences that believers construe as divine, spiritual, or transcendent.

The investigators specifically targeted a group of devout Mormons to determine which brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings. To achieve this, they created an environment that triggered participants to “feel the Spirit.” A critically important part of Mormons’ lives is identifying this feeling of closeness with God in oneself and others, and feeling at peace. These feelings are used to make decisions, are treated as confirmation of doctrinal principles and are viewed as a primary means of communication with the divine.

Nineteen young adult church members (7 females and 12 males) that were former full-time missionaries were subjected to fMRI scans. During the test, they performed four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings.

The exam lasted an hour and included:

  • Six minutes of rest
  • Six minutes of audiovisual control (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
  • Twelve minutes of audiovisual stimuli (church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes, and other religiously evocative content)
  • Eight minutes of quotations
An fMRI scan shows regions of the brain becoming active when religious study participants have a spiritual experience, including a brain reward center, the nucleus accumbens. (Image credit: Jeffrey Anderson)
An fMRI scan shows regions of the brain becoming active when religious study participants have a spiritual experience, including a brain reward center, the nucleus accumbens. (Image credit: Jeffrey Anderson)

During the first quotations portion of the exam, participants were shown a series of quotes, each followed by the question “Are you feeling the spirit?” Participants responded with answers ranging from ‘not feeling’ to ‘feeling very strongly’.

Researchers collected a detailed assessment of the feelings of each participant who reported experiencing the kinds of feelings typical of an intense worship service. They described physical sensations of warmth and feelings of peace. Many were in tears by the end of the exam. In one experiment, participants watched church produced stimuli and pushed a button when they felt a peak spiritual feeling.

Lead author Michael Ferguson, who carried out the study as a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah, noted that the participants’ brains and bodies physically responded when they were asked to think about being with their families for eternity, a savior, or about their heavenly rewards.

The fMRI scans showed that powerful spiritual feelings were associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens. This is a critical brain region for processing reward and the activation could be reproduced. Peak activity occurred between 1 and 3 seconds before participants pushed the button, irrespective of which of the four tasks they were performing. Heart beat increased and breathing deepened while participants were experiencing peak feelings.

The researchers also found that spiritual feelings were not only associated with the brain’s reward circuits, but also with the medial prefrontal cortex. This complex brain region is activated by tasks involving judgment, valuation and moral reasoning. Brain regions associated with focused attention are also activated by spiritual feelings.

Anderson explained that religious experience is one of the most influential parts of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for bad. He added that it is really important to understand what happens in the brain to contribute to those decisions. It is not yet known if believers of other religions would respond the same way. Work by other researchers suggests that the brain responds quite differently to contemplative and meditative practices characteristic of some eastern religions. Very little is however known about the neuroscience of western spiritual practices.

This is the first initiative of the Religious Brain Project that was launched by a group of University of Utah researchers in 2014. The project aims to understand how the brain operates in people with deep religious and spiritual beliefs.

The full study was published in the journal Social Neuroscience.