What does it mean to “feel the spirit?” To some, it may be in the form of physical sensations and emotions—perhaps, a sense of warmth, the presence of peace, tingling reminiscent of small jolts of electricity, or a state of euphoria. But, beyond the feelings, what is actually happening inside the body? A team of scientists wanted to know more, so they peered into the body’s “control center”—the brain.
“We were really wanting to know how the brain behaves during religious experiences, since religion is so influential. There are billions of people who claim that religion is a core motivation in their life and something they base major life decisions on,” said Ferguson, a former graduate student at the University of Utah and currently a postdoctoral researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Cornell University.
The spiritual experiences people find important can vary considerably, so while previous studies on how the brain participates in these events have been conducted in areas such as meditation, Ferguson noted that additional investigation is warranted.
“It was very important for us to have individuals from the same religious community for whom their spiritual experiences have a very similar meaning and description,” he said.
Ferguson and his colleagues chose to study how spiritual experiences affect the brain in members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Mormons—and recently published their work in the journal Social Neuroscience. They recruited returned missionaries, specifically those that expressed they “feel the spirit” often and strongly.
“These were individuals who have high levels of activity in their religious life. For example, they reported to go to church meetings on a weekly basis. They even reported weekly temple attendance, in addition to daily scripture study,” Ferguson said.
But would participants be able to “feel the spirit” while undergoing a brain scan in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine?
“It’s not a natural environment,” said Ferguson. “When the first participant came in and started pushing a button indicating they were ‘feeling the spirit’ very strongly during the brain scan, we got really excited. That’s when we realized we’re going to have some really cool result come out of this. We didn’t know what it was at the time, but the fact that the first individual was reporting to be so strongly connected to their spiritual feelings was a very good indicator.”
The 19 participants engaged in various religious activities during the fMRI, including prayer, watching videos of church leaders, and reading scriptures from the Book of Mormon and quotes from various world leaders. As a control, scientists recorded each individual’s baseline brain activity, in other words, the brain’s activity in the absence of a spiritually elevated state. This served as a means of comparison for when participants were “feeling the spirit” versus when they weren’t.
Each individual was also equipped with a button box, where they indicated at what level they were “feeling the spirit” during the scan.
“The participants reported the feelings they had while in the scanner matched up to the feelings they have in their normal devotional life. Some individuals were ‘feeling the spirit’ so strongly they were actually in tears at the end of their scan session,” said Ferguson.
As spiritual experiences took place, certain parts of the brain were consistently activated among the participants.
“We showed so clearly that a region called the nucleus accumbens is involved in spiritual experiences within a Mormon population,” Ferguson said. “This region is important because it is the reward center of the brain.”
The reward center might sound familiar as it responds to stimuli like love, music, gambling, sex, and drugs.
“The reward center is such a powerful region for learning what types of things are important or rewarding and leads to very provocative questions about how religious ideas and doctrines become rewarding to the brain,” said Ferguson.
The nucleus accumbens wasn’t the only part of the brain activated during the spiritual euphoria. Those involved focused attention and areas in the prefrontal cortex associated with a person’s moral compass and judgment lit up too, revealing it's not just a single brain region, but rather a network involved in generating spiritual experiences in Mormons.
“I am really thrilled about the prefrontal region of brain being involved in these experiences. It indicates there is higher thought. It was also exciting to see the nucleus accumbens, the reward region, activated because that’s such a powerful region for motivation and learned behavior,” Ferguson said. “The two of them working in conjunction with each other is an exciting puzzle for us to continue disentangling moving forward.”
As the scientists continue filling in pieces of this biological puzzle, they are now extending their studies to include non-religious individuals and people of different faiths as religious and spiritual practices vary greatly around the globe.
Additional information: This research was a collaboration between the University of Utah and Harvard University.