The conversation of whether or not God exists has shifted toward a more telling question: "Why do so many people believe?" Researchers at the University of Utah have looked into the brains of religious devotees, and found that faith may provide some particularly pleasurable rewards.
Using fMRI scans, the researchers found religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs, and music. That may be reason enough for adherents of the world's approximately 4,200 different religions.
"When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded," said Michael Ferguson, lead author of the study, and a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah, in a statement.
Spirituality uses several regions of the brain, with certain areas playing more dominant roles than others. However, as the researchers noted, they all work together to facilitate the spiritual experience for each individual.
In the study, published in Social Neuroscience, Ferguson and his colleagues conducted brain scans on 19 young-adult church members (seven females and 12 males), former full-time missionaries, while they performed four tasks meant to evoke spiritual feelings. The hour-long exam included six minutes of rest; six minutes of audiovisual control (a video detailing their church's membership statistics); eight minutes of quotations by Mormon and world religious leaders; eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon; 12 minutes of audiovisual stimuli (church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes, and other religiously evocative content); and another eight minutes of quotations, according to the study.
The researchers said they focused on Mormon participants, but did not specify whether they themselves are also Mormons.
The researchers found powerful spiritual feelings were linked to activation in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region that processes reward. Heightened activity occurred about one to three seconds before participants pushed the button; this was repeated in each of the four tasks. Experiencing peak feelings was linked with a faster heartbeat, and deepened breathing.
In addition, spiritual feelings were linked with the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region activated by tasks including valuation, judgement, and moral reasoning. These feelings also activated a brain region linked with focused attention.
"Religious experience is perhaps the most influential part of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill. Understanding what happens in the brain to contribute to those decisions is really important," said Dr. Jeff Anderson, senior author of the study and a neuroradiologist, in a statement.
A similar 2006 study in Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging compared brain activity in people who sing gospel and those who speak in tongues. The researchers found the frontal lobes, the thinking part of the brain that allows people to control what they do, were relatively quiet, as were the language centers. However the regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were active. Surprisingly, there was a dip in the activity of a region called the left caudate. The caudate is usually active when someone experiences positive affect, pleasure, and positive emotions.
So, how do the brains of non-believers, or atheists, differ?
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, who's spent decades studying spiritual beliefs and practices, made a fascinating discovery when he scanned the brains of several people, including “Kevin,” an atheist, Buddhist monks, and Franciscan nuns, while all were meditating. Kevin’s brain showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area that controls emotional feelings and mediates attention. His brain was found to be functioning in a highly analytical way, although he was in a resting state.
The researchers of the new study note they can’t generalize whether believers of other religions would respond the same way as the Mormons. This warrants further investigation, and should also include a comparative analysis of the brains of atheists and the brains on believers of different faiths.
The truth is there is no single spot for God in the brain; religious beliefs are all concocted by an orchestrated symphony conducted by the entire brain.
Source: Ferguson MA, Nielsen JA, King JB et al. Reward, Salience, and Attentional Networks are Activated by Religious Experience in Devout Mormons. Social Neuroscience. 2016.