Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in the same way as more hedonistic pursuits such as taking drugs, gambling and listening to music, according to a new study.
Researchers found spiritual feelings stimulated the nucleus accumbens – a brain region associated with processing reward and which is known to play a role in addiction, reported the Daily Mail.
Researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine, set out to determine which brain networks are involved in representing spiritual feelings in one group - devout Mormons - by creating an environment that triggered participants to 'feel the spirit.'
The team performed fMRI scans on 19 young adult church members while the volunteers performed four tasks to try and evoke spiritual feelings, as part of the 'Religious Brain Project'.
The hour-long session included resting, watching control and stimulating religious videos, including a video of Biblical scenes, quotations by Mormon and other religious leaders, the reading of familiar passages from The Book of Mormon and eight minutes of quotations.
During the quotations part of the experiment, the participants were asked 'Are you feeling the spirit' and were asked to gauge their response from 'not feeling' to 'very strongly feeling'.
The volunteers reported feeling peaceful and warm inside and some were in tears by the end of the scan when they felt a peak spiritual feeling when watching the 'stimulating' church video.
'When our study participants were instructed to think about a saviour, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,' said lead author Michael Ferguson, a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah.
Based on fMRI scans, the researchers found that powerful spiritual feelings were associated with activity in the area of the brain associated with processing reward.
This brain region is also known to play a role in addiction.
It has previously been found to be activated by taking euphoriant drugs such as amphetamines and by participating in rewarding experiences including music, sex and exercise.
According to the Medical Daily, 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 effect, pleasure, and positive emotions.