Intense religious experiences are coordinated by the same brain pathways that are aroused when we fall in love, listen to music, take recreational drugs or have sex.

Researchers found this evidence through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (FMRI). They scanned nearly 20 devout Mormon’s brains, as they were asked to perform actions designed to arouse intense religious experiences.

The study

These Mormons were all formerly missionaries, and prone to religious experiences. These included prayer, listening to readings from the Book of Mormon and watching video footage of enacted Biblical scenes.

Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah’s School of Medicine helped to co-ordinate the groundbreaking study. He said that the research was extremely important because

“Religious experience is perhaps the most influential part of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill.”

Indeed, if people are turning to God to make decisions, it is arguably highly important for us to understand as much about this process as possible. If there are other factors that can influence decisions, both religious and non-religious people could benefit from greater awareness. In an age where religious tensions are at an all-time high, this is arguably more urgent than ever.

The experiment

During the experiment, the Mormon participants were regularly asked if they could feel the presence of God or “the spirit”. They were asked to press a button when they identified the peak of ‘spiritual sensation’. This was described as a feeling of serendipity and affinity with God in both themselves and others. It is worth noting here that this is, of course, a subjective experience, and participants had to decide for themselves when they had reached their spiritual ‘peak’.

What happens in the brain during a religious experience

Describing their results in the academic journal Social Neuroscience, Anderson’s research team detailed that moments of intense religious experience were often defined by a notable activation in a brain region called the nucleus accumbens.

As part of the brain’s reward circuit, the nucleus accumbens is heavily involved in producing feelings of pleasure in response to stimuli like sex, music, food and drugs. Much research has been done into the brain’s ‘reward circuit’ and it is also known for influencing addiction as it plays a pivotal role in the release of dopamine – one of the chemicals which control a person’s mood and craving for an activity or substance.

The study authors also found notable activation in the medial prefrontal cortex during the activated religious experiences. The prefrontal cortex is known for being involved in higher cognitive functions like reasoning.

This suggests that religious experiences are partially produced by conscious judgment when responding to religious triggers. In other words, the research suggests that people of faith actively choose their beliefs and consequent religious experiences.

The conclusions

As important and interesting as this study is, it is necessary to recognise that the definition of a ‘religious experience’ radically differs from culture to culture and religion to religion. A Sikh’s experience of God is very different to a Christian or Muslim.

Regardless, more research into this area is imperative, as many people across the globe are making life-changing decisions based on religious experiences and will continue to do so.

We should aim to understand religious experiences and their influence as a way of better connecting people of different faiths, including atheists.

Ruth Newton, M.A., B.A.

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