Spiritual retreats boost brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals, finds study
A retreat based on spiritual exercises, contemplation, prayer and reflection may improve your physical and mental health, says a study conducted in the US.
Visiting a spiritual retreat may help lift your mood by triggering neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that are linked to love, enjoyment and memory, a new study has found.
Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University in the US observed about 14 participants ranging in age from 24 to 76. They attended a retreat based on the spiritual exercises developed by St Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuits.
Following a morning mass, participants spent most of the day in silent contemplation, prayer and reflection and attended a daily meeting with a spiritual director for guidance and insights.
After returning, study subjects also completed a number of surveys which showed marked improvements in their perceived physical health, tension and fatigue. They also reported increased feelings of self-transcendence which correlated to the change in dopamine binding.
The post-retreat scans revealed decreases in dopamine transporter (5-8%) and serotonin transporter (6.5%) binding, which could make more of the neurotransmitters available to the brain. This is associated with positive emotions and spiritual feelings. In particular, dopamine is responsible for mediating cognition, emotion and movement, while serotonin is involved in emotional regulation and mood, researchers said.
“Since serotonin and dopamine are part of the reward and emotional systems of the brain, it helps us understand why these practices result in powerful, positive emotional experiences,” said Andrew Newberg of Thomas Jefferson University.
“Our study showed significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters after the seven-day retreat, which could help prime participants for the spiritual experiences that they reported,” Newberg added.
The study was published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behaviour.
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