Spiritual Retreats Trigger Feel-Good Chemicals in the Brain

Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University found 'significant changes' in serotonin and dopamine transporters in the brains of participants in a seven-day Christian retreat.

The concept of the spiritual retreat goes back several thousand years, but it's seeing a serious revival recently as more people seek shelter from the relentlessness of the Information Age. The idea is to deliberately remove yourself from day-to-day concerns and connect with deeper, quieter rhythms through meditation or prayer. Serenity now!

Whatever the metaphysical benefits of such activities, religious or meditative retreats are supposed to make you feel better. New research indicates that we don't have to take this on faith anymore.

According to a new paper published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, the ritual of the spiritual retreat can trigger significant and positive changes in brain chemistry of participants. By way of advanced neurological scanning technology, scientists were able to put hard numbers to the phenomenon, tracking changes in the body's critical serotonin and dopamine systems. These neurotransmitters are often referred to as the brain's "feel good" chemicals, and are associated with feelings of contentedness and well-being.

Researchers with Thomas Jefferson University recently concluded an experiment with 14 participants, aged 24 to 76, who attended a seven-day Christian retreat. Specifically, the event was an Ignatian retreat, based on spiritual exercises developed by St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th century theologian who founded the Jesuits.

Medical scans administered following the retreat suggested greater amounts of dopamine and serotonin were available to the brains of participants. Previous clinical studies have shown that this condition is associated with positive emotions and spiritual feelings.

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The study subjects also completed several surveys that showed marked improvements in their perceived physical health, tension, and fatigue. What's more, they reported feelings of "self-transcendence" which correlate to the change in dopamine binding, according to study author Andrew Newberg, director of research in the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at TJU.

"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," Newberg said in a statement. "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."

In the Christian tradition, Ignatian retreats follow certain traditions and rituals that have endured for centuries. With the TJU study, participants attended a morning mass and a daily meeting with a spiritual director, then spent most of the day in silent contemplation and prayer.

"We are hoping to study additional types of programs including those that are religious and secular," Newberg said in an email. "So we hope to study other religious retreat programs as well as programs such as mindfulness."

The new research is part of a growing body of work that reveals spiritual practices have measurable effects on the brain and body. Newberg himself has performed more than 250 scans on people engaging in such practices.

"We have observed changes in the limbic system associated with emotional elements of these experiences," he said. "We have found changes in frontal lobe function such as increased activity during the focused attention of meditation - or decreased activity when a person experiences a sense of surrender. And we have found changes in the parietal lobe associated with feelings of oneness and self-transcendence."

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