The addictive drug of religion

Religious experience exerts the same effect on the brain as sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll!

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Religious and spiritual experiences excite the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits in exactly the same way as more down to earth pleasures, such as food, tobacco, alcohol or listening to music, but this is especially true when the individual expects the experience to be fulfilling or even joyful.

The mass hysteria whipped up by many [particularly American] evangelists is a prime example. Believe it or not, all that falling over backwards business has its roots in stage hypnosis – a pleasant and euphoric enough sensation in itself – but the uplifting experience of being filled with an imaginary Holy Spirit can be emotionally very powerful. The brain floods with ’feel-good’ dopamine, a natural and addictive opiate, and so religion has lot in common with sex, drugs and rock and roll. That would explain a lot!

As part of The Religious Brain Project, scientists and researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine studied 19 young and devout adult Mormons who underwent fMRI scans while they performed four tasks specifically designed to evoke spiritual feelings. Each hour-long session included watching religious videos of Biblical scenes, listening to quotations by Mr Mormon and other religious leaders, readings of familiar passages from The Book of Mormon and eight minutes of quotations. During the tests, the participants were asked if they were ‘feeling the spirit’ and then gauge their responses from feeling nothing to strongly feeling something.

All the volunteers reported feeling peaceful and warm inside and some were reduced to tears when they felt a peak spiritual feeling while watching the ‘stimulating’ church video at the end of the scan.

When study participants were asked to think about their saviour, or about being with their families for eternity, or about their heavenly rewards, there was a noticeable response in their brains. This response was seen to be in the same area activated by taking drugs such as amphetamines, designed to produce feelings of euphoria, and by participating in other rewarding experiences including music, sex and exercise.

The volunteer’s peak religious feelings coincided neatly with their brain regions ‘lighting up,’ an increase in their heart rates, and deeper breathing. In addition to the brain’s reward circuits, the researchers found that spiritual feelings were associated with increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. This complex area of the brain has previously been shown to be activated when performing tasks involving valuation, judgement and moral reasoning.

They also confirmed that spiritual feelings stimulated a region of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) associated with processing reward and which is known to play a role in addiction.

Spiritual feelings also activated brain areas associated with focused attention, as with hypnosis. Senior researcher Jeff Anderson, a neuro-radiologist, claims that religious experience is one of the most influential factors in how and why people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill, which is an extremely good reason why understanding what happens in the brain to contribute to those decisions is important.

The study was published in the journal Social Neuroscience and I can hardly wait to find out if believers of other religions would respond, let alone cooperate in the same way as the Mormons did.

There is however, an upside to this particular addiction and its roots are buried deep in the evolutionary psyche of humans.

It cannot be denied that religion can have a profound effect on the brain, which is one of the reasons why religion, in one form or another, has endured for thousands of years. Religion is a part of every culture – it provides a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction that can now be measured on a neurological level.

Religious faith can provide a lifeline in times of worry and desperation. The feel-good chemicals that tickle the brain’s pleasure centres are the physical constituent of the peace, solace and strength that spirituality provides, and this is especially important for the terminally ill.

We know that cancer and Aids patients who adhere to a religion have fewer symptoms of depression than those who do not. They are also less likely to be hospitalised and are more likely to maintain a reasonable level of health. Religious belief is also known to help in the recovery of those who suffer from depression.

Spirituality and the religious experience bestow upon us certain benefits – an inner peace can give us the strength to tackle even the greatest challenges. In short, religion can provide hope when everything seems hopeless.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.