Study shows neurological impact of religion

Photo by David Olsen
Lewis believers who gather for daily mass at the Sancta Alberta Chapel are motivated by faith that stimulates and rewards the brain, according to a new study.

Georgi Presecky, Editor-in-Chief

According to a new study in the Social Neuroscience journal, spiritual thoughts are linked in the brain to the same reward system as romantic love and joy.

Conducted at the University of Utah School of Medicine, the experiment required 19 young adult Mormons to complete church-related tasks such as reading the Bible, praying and listening to fellow Mormon testimonials.

fMRI scans of the participants’ brains showed that at moments when they were “feeling the Spirit,” the brain’s nucleus accumbens that process rewards were stimulated.

These areas of the brain have also been associated with “romantic and parental love, reward and drug-induced euphoric states,” according to the journal article, which was published Nov. 29.

Scientific research on how the brain rewards religious experiences such as prayer and meditation contributes to “understanding the motivation of religious behavior and health effects of religious practices,” according to the study.

It’s natural to assume that most people who continue to practice their faith experience feelings of comfort and serenity as a result of their spirituality, but now there is physical proof of how the brain literally lights up as a result of religious experiences.

“Feelings of peace and joy during prayer have been associated with increased future religious commitment and improved sleep quality,” according to the new research.

Religion and neuroscience don’t typically mix, according to a Nov. 29 article by CNN’s Jacqueline Howard. The study’s lead author, Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, told Howard that this is one of few studies that have shown how spirituality neurologically impacts people of faith.

“Billions of people make important decisions in life based on spiritual and religious feelings and experiences. It’s one of the most powerful influences on our social behavior,” he told CNN. “Yet we know so little about what actually happens in the brain during these experiences. It’s just a critical question that needs more study.”

Lewis theology professor Br. Armand Alcazar, FSC, agrees that “intelligent believers are bolstered by scientific research that confirms what they already experience,” but do not necessarily look to it for reassurance.

“I also think, feel [and] experience that spiritual practitioners do not have a need to be backed up by science in order to continue their spiritual and/or religious experience,” Alcazar said. “We experience what we experience. Of course, some scientists can say, ‘if it can’t be measured then it isn’t true,’ regardless of what the ‘it’ is. The spiritual answer to that is a high regard for the power of mystery.”

The researchers acknowledge the subjectivity of spirituality, stating that “descriptions of religious experience are broad, encompassing elements of emotion, salience, language, attention, arousal, memory and social and moral cognition that are difficult to isolate.”


Georgi Presecky
Georgi Presecky is a senior public relations/advertising major with a minor in social media. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Flyer after spending two years as a layout editor. She aspires to be Rory Gilmore but is actually much more like Paris Geller. She has accepted this.

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