This Is Your Brain on God

Scientists found that having a religious or spiritual experience activates the brain's "reward circuits" in the same way that love, sex, gambling, drugs and music do.

How does an Evangelical Lutheran woman in Minnesota experience God compared to a member of ISIS in Afghanistan?

More than 5.8 billion people say that religion and spirituality have some influence on their lives. Yet scientists know very little about what happens in the brain when someone is having a religious experience. Why does one person feel peace, joy and positivity, while another feels motivated to carry out an act of violence? Are the same neural networks in the brain responsible for both? Or do they differ from one person to the next?

These and many other questions are the focus of new research from neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Today in the journal Social Neuroscience, they report on an imaging study that shows that having a religious or spiritual experience activates the brain's "reward circuits" in the same way that love, sex, gambling, drugs and music do.

The findings, part of the university's Religious Brain Project, have the potential for identifying how people are different and how they are the same when it comes to religion and spirituality.

"Even if the messages of our gods are different, the fact that we may feel those messages the same way in the brain is a way of fostering understanding," Anderson told Seeker.

To conduct the study, Anderson and his colleagues invited 19 Mormons - seven females and 12 males - to participate in an hourlong functional MRI scan. During the scan, the scientists asked participants to do four different tasks: rest silently, watch a video, pray and read scriptures. The session was meant to simulate a worship service and evoke a charismatic religious experience that devout Mormons call "feeling the Spirit." In these moments, people of Mormon faith feel close to God, consider those feelings a form of communicating with the divine and rely on them to make important decisions.

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At various times during the scan, the scientists asked the person, "Are you feeling the Spirit?" The person would respond by pushing one of four buttons, with one meaning "not feeling it" and four meaning "very strong feeling it." The scientists also monitored the person's heart rate and respiration.

Before the scan, the participant filled out a questionnaire related to his or her personal morality, and then afterward, a scientist sat with the participant for a debriefing, allowing each one to describe his or her experience.

Almost all of them said they felt feelings similar to those they experienced during worship services, including peace and even physical sensations of warmth. Many were so filled with emotion by the end of the session, their eyes filled with tears.

"When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded," author Michael Ferguson, Ph.D., said in a press statement.

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When Anderson, Ferguson and the team looked at the fMRI results, they found that the same areas of the brain activated in all of the participants. One region of the brain has to do with performing tasks that involve valuation, judgment and moral reasoning. Another region, associated with focused attention, also became active.

Finally, they found that the part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which is the region that processes rewards, also became active. This same area is associated with maternal and romantic love, appreciation of music and and euphoric states associated with certain drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamines.

That similar parts of the brain lit up in all of the participants suggests that even humans with different beliefs share similar brain activity when it comes to religion.

"That decreases the sense to which someone is 'other' and increases empathy," said Anderson.

Maybe one day that will change how we interact each other.