Religion And Opium Hits The Brain To The Same Extent
Scientists from the School of Medicine at the University of Utah have found out why many people tend to dive deep into religion for life, as well as follow religious rules and believe in miracles. It turns out that the spiritual things they experience activate the reward system in the brain in the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music.
So both religion and opium affect the same brain system, although the phrase connecting the first and the second (“Religion is the opium of the people”) was uttered not by a neuroscientist and not even by Karl Marx.
The results of such an interesting study are reported in the Social Neuroscience journal.
During the MRI’s, 19 young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including seven women and 12 men, performed tasks for an hour that were supposed to generate spiritual experiences. The study included six minutes of rest, six minutes of audiovisual monitoring (video detailing their church membership statistics), eight minutes of listening to quotes from Mormons and various religious leaders around the world, eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormons, 12 minutes of audiovisual stimuli (Church family videos (not home videos, no), Bible stories and others with emotional religious content), and, finally, another eight minutes of quotes.
During the quotation part of the study, participants, each of whom were strong religion fans, were asked, “Do you feel the spirit?” After each new quotation. Participants rated their feelings on a scale ranging from “not feeling” to “feeling strongly.”
The scientists collected detailed assessments of the feelings of the participants, who almost always reported that they experienced different sensations typical for worship. They described serenity and a physical feeling of warmth. Many cried during the scan. In one experiment, participants even pressed special buttons when they experienced a peak of spiritual ecstasy while watching church movies.
Based on fMRI scans, scientists have found that powerful spiritual feelings are associated with activation of the nucleus accumbens, a critical area of the brain for processing information related to pleasure and reward. The peak of activity was starting 1-3 seconds before the participants pressed the button and was repeated in each of the tasks. As soon as people reached this peak, their breathing and heart rate increased.
In addition, the researchers found that spiritual feelings are also associated with the activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for tasks involving evaluation, judgment, and moral reasoning. Spiritual sensations also affected areas of the brain associated with attention.
“Religious experience has perhaps the strongest influence on decisions that affect all of us, good and bad. Understanding what’s going on in the brain can bring a rationale to this process,” says senior author and neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson, noting that it still should be learned how followers of other religions react in the same situations.