Science and religion have finally found a common interest: the human brain. New research reveals the neuroscience behind intense religious experiences, suggesting that moments of spiritual enlightenment are coordinated by the same brain circuits that become activated when we fall in love, have sex, listen to music or take drugs.
"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,” said study co-author Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah's School of Medicine, in a statement.
To figure out how faith affects neurological activity, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain of 19 devout Mormons, all of whom were former missionaries, as they performed tasks designed to arouse spiritual feelings. These included listening to readings from the Book of Mormon and watching videos of Biblical scenes.
During the experiment, participants were regularly asked if they were “feeling the spirit”, identified as a feeling of peace and closeness with God in oneself and others, and instructed to press a button when they reached a peak spiritual sensation.
Describing their findings in the journal Social Neuroscience, the researchers write that moments of intense religious experience tended to be characterized by a strong activation in a brain region called the nucleus accumbens. As part of the brain’s reward circuit, this area is heavily involved in producing feelings of pleasure in response to stimuli like sex, music, food and drugs.
The study authors also found activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in higher cognitive functions like reasoning. This suggests that religious experiences are partially produced by conscious judgment and attribution of value to religious stimuli, meaning people of faith actively choose their beliefs.
Fascinating as these findings may be, the study authors warn against drawing too many conclusions, and note that religious experiences can differ hugely between individuals and cultures, and are therefore likely to have a wide range of neurological causes and consequences.