Religion On the Brain


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Have you ever wandered why those shouting “Alleluia!” at church on Sunday morning seem happier and more energetic than the average person, projecting a feeling of satisfaction in their lives that you don’t get from the folks reading the paper at Starbucks on Sunday morning?

I understand this well because I have used religion as a refuge from despair on plenty of occasions —including most of my childhood. I walked a mile every day to Mass because within the walls of St. Charles Borromeo Church, I felt safe, sane, even loved. Sometimes all those obsessions and compulsions that stalked me throughout my afternoons would hush for that half-hour, especially if we sang one of my favorite hymns like “Be Not Afraid.”

A November study from the University of Utah School of Medicine, published in the journal Social Neuroscience, demonstrates how religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits just like love, sex, gambling, drugs, and music.

The study involved 19 young-adult Mormon church members (seven females and 12 males) who performed four tasks in response to content meant to evoke spiritual feelings. The hour-long exam included elements such as: a video detailing their church’s membership statistics, quotations from world religious leaders, passages from the Book of Mormon, and a video of family and Biblical scenes.

The participants almost universally reported experiencing the kinds of emotions that are typical in an intense worship service: feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth.

Based on the brain imaging scans (fMRI), researchers found that when participants experienced spiritual emotions, there was activation in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain critical for processing reward. Spiritual feelings were also associated with activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for judgment, moral reasoning, and focused attention.

“We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine, or transcendent,” says senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson. “In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia.”

There have been many other studies documenting changes in the brain caused by religious experience, some asserting that religion contributes to emotional resiliency and decreased risk of depression. For example, according to research conducted by Lisa Miller, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, a thickening of the brain cortex is associated with spiritual and religious activities. This study links the protective benefit of spirituality or religion to previous studies that identified large expanses of cortical thinning in specific regions of the brains of adult offspring of families at high risk for major depression.

A previous study by Miller and her team published in September 2011 in The American Journal of Psychiatry showed a 76 percent decrease in major depression in adults who said they highly valued spirituality or religiosity, and whose parents suffered from the disease.

There are logical reasons for the brain activity. Religion provides hope and assigns meaning to suffering. Stories of redemption—of martyrs and faith heroes who have persevered in their trials—offer great consolation that there is a bigger purpose to the hardship we are enduring now and don’t understand. Congregations of every denomination sing inspirational hymns that appeal to our senses while offering us insight and wisdom. Most churches also provide a support system and a community to lean on, both of which are important for good health.

Whatever the reason, the proof is in: religious experience changes our brains.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Shutterstock (2)

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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7 thoughts on “Religion On the Brain

  1. Yes I fully agree that but for the Grace of God and the beloved holy Mother Mary I would not be here. I was born Catholic and my faith is deeply ingrained in my soul. However religions divide people. Let’s spread love by being as Jesus- like as possible and open our arms to all Faith’s and let our beliefs not divide us but serve to enrich our lives for the better of us all. For we are the world and can only be as well as our neighbor. I am thinking of the white supremist who was responsible for brainwashing his follower who murdered several people at the Sikh temple in WI. This man is reformed now after having a child of his own and realizing what he had created begged forgiveness at the temple and he was embraced. He did not want to bring up his child to hate. So all you people of faith come out of your churches and congregate like never before for the Love of God and do not I repeat do not turn from someone of another faith saying their truth is not the way unless of course it is a faith built on greed and hate of difference.

  2. There is a big ontological component missing in trying to give brain-based explanations for spiritual experiences. Spiritual experiences are about the mind (i.e., constantly changing sense impressions and mental phenomena), and we need to remember that it is the mind that interprets the organ brain as well. Additionally, changes in mind-states bring about changes in the brain (this is called neuroplasticity).

    1. Yes. I agree with what you said about “trying to give brain-based explanations for spiritual experiences.”.

      For myself, and those who have had similiar “experiences”, especially when you are out of your body (like in a near-death experience and you see everything going on around you or travel elsewhere and what you’ve seen is later verified, etc.), you begin to realize that the brain is just an organ we need whilst in the human body. Once you are outside of your body, your consciouness (what some of us may call “mind” on this side of the Veil, and what some may also call “soul” depending upon one’s beliefs), is continually with you. (Which is why it’s so important for me to try to be the best version of myself that I can be because I know I’m still taking “me” over to the “other side”.).

      But…this is just my own opinion from my own experience and what I’ve learned from the experience of others will similar experiences.

      Peace!

      1. Wow… I just realize I wrote a lot of “experience(s).”. But it has been some “experience” being on this side.

        Peace!!!

  3. If I weren’t Spiritual, if I didn’t believe in the awesome universal power of Love, Forgiveness and Compassion, if I weren’t Christian, I would NOT be here today.

    Therese, this is a beautifully written piece that unites both the sciences and theology. It helps to start conversations on the transcendental healing powers of spirituality and the amazing positive forces of community.

    Thank you for your perseverance and constant efforts as a mental health advocate, my friend.

  4. Certainly an interesting concept and worth discussing. I’d be very interested to see cortical mapping comparisons between both religious and non religious people at both childhood and adult hood.

    The idea of religion being a consequential part of the reward center cgctb-loop is interesting in that its existence itself is intrinsic rather than external, which makes the whole idea so meta.

    I think I’ve got some reading up to do.
    Thanks. :)

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