New research suggests people can become addicted to the feel-good brain chemicals brought on by religious experiences. Ana Kasparian and John Iadarola, hosts of The Young Turks, break it down.
“Although religious experience impacts more than 5.8 billion people worldwide, our understanding of the brain networks involved remains obscure. In a study published today in the journal Social Neuroscience, researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine report that religious and spiritual experiences activate reward circuits in the brain — the same that are associated with feelings of love and drug-induced euphoric states.
Researchers used fMRI to image the brain’s electrical activity while spiritual feelings were evoked in participants inside the scanner. 19 young devout Mormons, 12 males and 7 females, who were all former full-time missionaries, were chosen because of the intensity of their routine religious experience—known as “feeling the spirit.” A key part of being Mormon involves identifying this experience in oneself and teaching this ability to new converts. Followers of the faith make decisions based on these feelings and view them as a way to communicate with God. This made them the ideal choice for a study aimed at uncovering the specific neural circuits involved with religious experience.
To trigger these religious feelings, participants were given four tasks over the course of an hour while their brains were scanned. The exercises were designed to emulate the Mormon religious experience, and included prayer, scripture study, audiovisual presentations of religious music with images of Biblical scenes and other strongly religious content, and quotes from church leaders. To make sure only the images of brain states associated with intense religious experience were captured, participants were intermittently asked to give subjective ratings, with responses to “Are you feeling the spirit?” ranging from “not feeling” to “very strongly feeling.”
The tasks were highly effective, as many participants were actually brought to tears during the session. Detailed first-person assessments showed that feelings of inner peace and physical sensations of warmth were common. Overall, the feelings evoked were described as similar to those experienced during a typical intense worship service.”