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.