MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Jeffrey S. Anderson, MD, PhD
Director the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service
Principal Investigator for the Utah Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory
University of Utah
MedicalResearch.com: What is your study about?
Response: Billions of people find meaning in life and make choices based on religious and spiritual experiences. These experiences range from epiphanies that change the lives of celebrated mystics to subtle feelings of peace and joy in the lives of neighbors, friends, or family members that are interpreted as spiritual, divine, or transcendent.
Astonishingly, with all we understand about the brain, we still know very little about how the brain participates in these experiences. We set out to answer what brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings in one group of people, devout Mormons.
MedicalResearch.com Why study Mormons?
Response: The best way to identify religious and spiritual experiences is for someone to tell you they are having one. Such experiences in Mormons are a frequent and central part of their religious practice. A large percentage of Mormons serve 1-2 year missions as young adults where one of the main activities every day is to identify when they and others are experiencing such feelings. They have years of training in identifying precisely what we were looking for: when they are “feeling the Spirit.” And these feelings are critically important to their lives. Mormons make decisions based on these feelings; they treat these feelings as confirmation of doctrinal principles; these feelings are interpreted as a primary means of communication with the divine.
MedicalResearch.com: How can you study these feelings in a laboratory?
Response: Surprisingly well. An MRI scanner can be a private place. We collected detailed assessments of the types of feelings participants reported, and almost universally they reported experiencing the kinds of feelings typical in an intense worship service. Many of them were in tears when they completed the scan.
MedicalResearch.com: How did you study spiritual feelings?
Response: We performed several complementary experiments. We had quotations from LDS and world religious leaders, and asked volunteers to describe spiritual feelings they felt during each quotation. We had them read key passages of scripture that were familiar to them. In one experiment participants pushed a button when they felt a peak spiritual feeling while watching church-produced audiovisual stimuli designed to evoke such feelings.
MedicalResearch.com: What did you find?
Response: We found that characteristic brain regions were reproducibly active during peak spiritual experiences. The same regions were replicated in 4 independent tasks across individuals. Most striking was activation of the nucleus accumbens, the reward center of the brain. Reward circuitry kept showing up in responses. In one experiment, when participants pushed a button when they were feeling the Spirit, we saw a peak in activity in the nucleus accumbens about 1-3 seconds before they pushed the button. And there were associated autonomic changes like faster heart rate and deeper breaths during these peak feelings.
MedicalResearch.com: How do you interpret these findings?
Response: These experiments frame spiritual experience in the context of classical reward pathways. The same regions are active during feelings of romantic and parental love, response to sexual stimuli, appreciation of music, response to drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines, and winning at gambling.
MedicalResearch.com: How might different individuals see these results?
Response: It’s probably not surprising that spiritual feelings are associated with reward. They are rewarding experiences that are described as joy, peace, feeling content or happy. I would imagine our results are largely consistent with how believers describe their own feelings.
But these feelings can also be interpreted as a physiological response to religious stimuli along the lines of classical conditioning. If religious believers are trained to associate reward with religious ideas, it suggests a mechanism whereby the powerfully motivating brain reward circuits can come to reinforce religious behavior and conviction. From this point of view, there’s no real reason why any religious doctrine from “love your neighbor” to “obey your leader” couldn’t be trained to elicit very similar feelings in an appropriate system of religious training and reinforcement.
Reward circuits of the brain are powerful influences on behavior. The same physiology contributes to addiction and love in different contexts. Rewarding feelings associated with spiritual experience could be a mechanism for devotion to religious leaders or community and life changing decisions. These feelings are often interpreted as a confirmation of moral values or communication with god.
MedicalResearch.com: So are religious believers “addicted” to religious experience?
Response: The same circuits are involved, and it’s not coincidence that religion has been described as the “opium of the people.” But there are equally important differences. We don’t typically speak of romantic love as an addiction, but many of the same brain circuits are involved. People feel withdrawals when a romantic relationship ends. There can be a sense of dependency. Ultimately the term “addiction” is interpreted in terms of whether a behavior is adaptive or maladaptive. And timing between stimulus and response is important. Healthy triggering of reward pathways with exercise and unhealthy responses to cocaine may result in very different outcomes in terms of whether something sustains and enriches life or controls and degrades quality of life.
MedicalResearch.com: What other brain regions were involved?
Response: There is one basic reward circuit in the brain, but how a rewarding experience feels to us can depend on what other brain regions are paired with reward. In drug abuse, it’s primarily the reward circuits that are active by themselves. We also see activation of regions often associated with valuation or judgment and with focused attention. We also saw some regions like the insula that can be associated with empathy and social intuition that were active, more so in some individuals than others. In fact, we saw significant correlations between how much the insula was involved in spiritual feelings and the extent to which individuals rated the importance of certain moral values like feeling the pain of others and purity of belief. So how the spiritual response is modulated in an individual may have a lot to do with how different religious believers weight different moral ideals or what types of experiences are more likely to trigger spiritual feelings.
MedicalResearch.com: How might spiritual experiences differ between individuals and religious groups?
Response: There’s so much we don’t know about this. Religious experiences are so understudied. A growing literature related to Eastern spiritual traditions like Buddhism and meditation suggests that there may be a very different library of brain circuits associated with contemplative practice. Certainly different Western spiritual practices may involve different regions of the brain differently in important ways that can help us understand the differences between groups in social behavior. But there are also good reasons to believe there are shared neural libraries underlying spiritual experience and practice. As complex as our brains are, there are classical pathways for reward, language, attention, and reason that occur pretty much in the same way in every person, and in the same places. It may be that understanding the shared ways in which we feel and experience spirituality might help encourage mutual understanding. Even when the messages from our Gods differ, if we understand that we may be experiencing those feelings in similar ways, that could be an important bridge for empathy.
MedicalResearch.com: What are next steps in religious neuroscience?
Response: There is so much to learn. The circuits activated in our study during spiritual experience are complex, involving dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and opioid neurotransmitters. Sorting out exactly which circuits play a role is an important opportunity. We want to understand how religious belief shapes attachment to leaders and ideas. We need to study other faiths and traditions to see how the brain may participate differently across cultures and individuals. Brain imaging technologies have matured, even in the last few years, in ways that let us answer questions that have been around for millenia. It’s so exciting, yet funding sources for the study of religious neuroscience are scarce, and the field is so understudied.
Michael A. Ferguson, Jared A. Nielsen, Jace B. King, Li Dai, Danielle M. Giangrasso, Rachel Holman, Julie R. Korenberg, Jeffrey S. Anderson. Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons. Social Neuroscience, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2016.1257437
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