Is there any scientific research on spirituality

A look into the brain of believers

Spirituality and religion play an important role in many people's lives - they provide support in crises, help with decisions and contribute to emotional well-being. Now a study with devout Mormons shows: The feeling of happiness in phases of intense religious feelings is caused, among other things, by the reward center in the brain. Similar neurons fire in the spiritual experience as in love, sex, gambling or even addiction.

Religion and spirituality not only influence our personal views and our behavior, they also shape entire societies and are, not least, the trigger of conflicts and wars. Researchers also suspect that religion may have allowed the emergence of large, complex civilizations. Because the belief in an omniscient, in case of doubt also punitive deity promoted cooperation and solidarity in larger groups. In contrast, science is only gradually beginning to fathom what spirituality does in the individual and whether this manifests itself in the brain. Studies with meditating and praying people show that this spiritual practice causes measurable changes in brain activity. Meditation even proves to be helpful against migraines and if exercised regularly it can even leave permanent traces in the brain: It strengthens the connections between brain areas that are responsible for perception and self-control and inhibits the fear center. "We are only just beginning to understand how the brain is involved in experiences that believers describe as spiritual, divine, or transcendent," said senior author Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah.

To find out more about the neural basis of religion, the researchers examined what goes on in the brains of devout Mormons when they are in a state of strong religious sentiment. This “feeling the spirit” is described by the believers as a feeling of peace and closeness to God and other people, but also as a feeling of physical warmth. For believing Mormons, this feeling during prayer or worship is an important part of their religion and for some even serves as a basis for decisions. They believe that this intense emotional state is an important part of communicating with God. For the study, the researchers played quotes from religious scriptures and religious videos to 19 devout Mormons while the participants lay in the brain scanner. With the help of functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI), they recorded the subjects' brain activity. After each test section, they indicated how strong their religious feeling was. In one trial, they pressed a head when they felt particularly strong emotions.

Activity in the reward center

It showed that the unfamiliar environment of the brain scanner did not prevent the young Mormons from entering a state of intense religious emotions. Similar to a church service, they described a feeling of peace and warmth, many were even so moved that they had tears in their eyes, as the researchers report. A lot happened in the believers' brains too: During phases of strong spiritual feelings, the brain scanner registered a clear activation of the nucleus accumbens - an important part of the reward circuit in the brain. This brain center contributes, among other things, to the fact that we feel intense satisfaction with love, sex, music, but also gambling and drugs. Apparently the feeling of happiness in Mormon religious practice also originated in this circuit.

In addition to these more emotional reactions, religious practice triggered further brain changes in the believing subjects: Centers for attention and the medial prefrontal cortex were also particularly active in phases of strong spiritual sensations. This area of ​​the brain is responsible for evaluations, assessments of situations and moral considerations, among other things. Accordingly, the religious rapture among the pious Mormons also has a rational component and is not a pure, diffuse feeling.

"Religious experiences are perhaps one of the most influential factors in people making decisions - for better or for worse," says Anderson. “It is all the more important to understand what happens in the brain and how it contributes to these decisions.” So far, a lot is known about how meditation and other Far Eastern spiritual practices affect the brain. For various Christian and generally Western religions, however, this has not yet been studied very much - this is only the beginning, says the researcher. "In the past few years, neuroscience imaging technologies have advanced so far that we can now address questions that have been open for millennia," says Anderson. It remains questionable whether the phenomenon of religion and spirituality can be explored on the basis of such recordings alone.


© - Nadja Podbregar
29th November 2016