How does the brain of a believer function?

People who have had a religious experience often describe feelings of joy, warmth and peace. The same feelings are associated with falling in love. However, the brain mechanisms of a believer remain unknown. The current study aimed to improve understanding of the neurobiology underlying spiritual and religious experiences. How does the brain of a believer function?

Hypotheses about the neurobiology of a religious experience are conflicting. Discovering the neuroscience of religious experiences seems vital if we are to understand the motivation for religious behavior. The study undertaken by American researchers from the University of Utah and published in the review Social Neuroscience, looked at the Mormon community. For Mormons, the identification of a spiritual and religious experience in oneself, and teaching others how to find their own experience, is an important topic of conversation. The Mormon church provides daily guidance on how to recognize spiritual feelings through the medium of prayer and studying the Scriptures. Jeff Anderson and his colleagues wanted to identify if spiritual feelings self-identified by Mormons were associated with the activation of specific neuronal circuits. Their hypothesis was that the reward circuits of the ventral striatum would be activated during an experience of self-identified spiritual feelings. If this was the case, it would suggest that the religious experience was based on a reward mechanism, explaining the creation and the maintenance of religious beliefs.

The researchers analyzed the cerebral activity of 19 young adults (average age = 27.4 years; 7 women, 12 men) while they were listening to sermons from Mormon scripture. What were the results of the cerebral images? When the devotees were listening to the preacher, the nucleus accumbens were highly active. This part of the brain is known to play a key role in the reward circuit, which depends primarily on two neurotransmitters: dopamine and serotonin. Similarly, the nucleus accumbens are highly solicited when we are satisfied and when we feel pleasure. The connection between spiritual experience and the activation of this area of the brain leads us to believe that religious indoctrination could be based on a form of Pavlovian conditioning (or classical conditioning). This concept, which was developed in the 19th century by Ivan Pavlov, has helped to explain how our reflexes and natural instincts can be conditioned by our environment (most animal reflexes are determined by this law).

Those responsible for the study don’t want to imply that all believers are being manipulated. Still, this scientific progress helps us to understand the neuronal mechanisms underlying religious experiences, and it could provide guidance for psychologists helping people who have been falsely indoctrinated by a guru or sect.
Source: Michael A. Ferguson, Jared A. Nielsen, Jace B. King, Li Dai, Danielle M. Giangrasso, Rachel Holman, “Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons”, in Social Neuroscience, Nov. 2016

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