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Look within: Spirituality is as rewarding as all else that we love doing

Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, a new study has found.

health and fitness Updated: Nov 30, 2016 19:03 IST
Religious and spiritual experiences share the same neural mechanisms that are associated with romantic and parental love, reward, and drug-induced euphoric states.
Religious and spiritual experiences share the same neural mechanisms that are associated with romantic and parental love, reward, and drug-induced euphoric states. (Shutterstock)

Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, a new study has found.

The findings suggests that religious and spiritual experiences share the same neural mechanisms that are associated with romantic and parental love, reward, and drug-induced euphoric states.

Among such rewarding stimuli, religious experience uniquely contributes to establishment of social systems with far-reaching consequences for pro and antisocial behaviours, said the researchers from the University of Utah in the US.

In the study, the researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on 19 young Mormons — members of the Latter-Day Saints church — when they were reading religious texts and reported feeling ‘close to the spirit.’

Religious experience uniquely contributes to establishment of social systems with far-reaching consequences for pro and antisocial behaviours, claim researchers. (Shutterstock)

The results showed that powerful spiritual feelings activated nucleus accumbens — a critical brain region for processing reward.

This brain region has been previously linked to feelings of romantic love and addictions like gambling, the researchers said.

In addition, spiritual feelings were also associated with the medial prefrontal cortex — a complex brain region that is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgment and moral reasoning. Brain regions associated with focused attention were also activated.

“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 Jeff Anderson, neuroradiologist at the University of Utah.

Among such rewarding stimuli, religious experience uniquely contributes to establishment of social systems with far-reaching consequences for pro and antisocial behaviours, the researchers said.

The study was published in the journal Social Neuroscience.

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