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Study: Religious experiences trigger brain’s reward circuit in devout Mormons

A woman studies the Book of Mormon. Photo by Julia Malakie.

(RNS) A new study of a group of devout Mormons finds that feelings of religious devotion were associated with activation in the parts of the brain that process reward.

The brain similarly processes romantic and parental affection and drug-induced euphoric states, the study said.

Published Tuesday (Nov. 29) in the journal Social Neuroscience, the study was completed by a team from the University of Utah, led by Jeffrey S. Anderson.

“There’s not a lot of neuroscience related to religious experience, but it’s so important,” Anderson said.

In the study, 19 devout male and female Mormons’ brain activities were observed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine while they performed typical religious practices, including praying, reading quotations from world religious authorities and passages from the Book of Mormon, their main religious text. All the participants had served at least one and a half years of missionary service for the Mormon church.

It found that their religious actions were associated with activations in the region of the brain central to the reward circuit as well as the region associated with decision-making and attention.

Though the study only observed devout Mormons, Anderson believed that the results probably have implications for devotees of other religions.

“These mechanisms can’t be exclusive to Mormons,” Anderson said. “I think these are general mechanisms of spiritual experiences. They are likely to be shared across faith traditions.”

Since the study has been released, Anderson said that he’s received mixed feedback from Mormons. Some thought that the results affirmed their convictions of doctrinal belief.

“They feel them frequently,” Anderson said of the Mormons who participated in the study. “They make big life decisions based on these feelings. To many active Mormons, some see it as a validation. These feelings are objectively verifiable, and that’s comforting.”

Other Mormons, Anderson said, had trouble reconciling something they perceive as a supernatural experience with a neurological response.

“Some are troubled or threatened by the result,” he said.

The team of scientists who made the up study had various degrees of experience with the Mormon church, from those who left the church to those who were actively a part of it.

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