U professor and neuroscientist Jeffrey Anderson has waited a long time for an opportunity like this. “I’ve wanted to do this study for as long as I can remember,” said Anderson. Along with other researchers, Anderson recently published a study examining how spiritual experiences affect the brains of devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Spiritual experiences are important to members of the LDS church and have been recorded since the church’s inception. In one of the church’s books of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, it says that if a religious principle is true, an individual’s “bosom shall burn within.”
Barbara Gillespie, a junior in biology who is also a member of the LDS church, said she’d describe “feeling the spirit” as “having an underlying feeling of calm and happiness that sticks with me regardless of circumstances.”
Gillespie said she uses this feeling to guide her everyday decisions.
“Not only does this help me feel happier, but that then leads me to be more friendly and reach out to others, to be more focused in work and school, and to be less stressed out overall,” said Gillespie.
“Approaching questions about experiences that shape values, social behavior and beliefs was my motivation for becoming a neuroscientist,” said Anderson. “People are rightly fascinated by religious behavior and ‘spiritual experiences’, yet only a handful of studies have been attempted to probe how such experiences are represented in the brain.”
One study of Danish Christians found “some provocative regions [of the brain] activated during prayer.” Another study “found that, when listening to music, peak emotional experiences and chills were associated with reward networks of the brain.” But, according to Anderson, most related studies had “just a few subjects and couldn’t reliably identify brain patterns associated with religious or spiritual experiences.”
In the last few years, fMRI scanning technology has made significant advancements. The study took advantage of these new “state-of-the-art imaging techniques” and some of the methods from previous research, to try to identify which areas of the brain were activated when participants reported “feeling the spirit.” Anderson said once the study had been planned, approved and funded, the researchers “set out to see if we could image a specific type of spiritual experience with unprecedented precision.”
The brain scans showed the involvement of areas of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, attentional regions and the medial prefrontal cortex, among others. These areas of the brain are known to be involved in reward mechanisms, making value and moral judgments, and heightened attention. Anderson and the other researchers concluded that the scans may indicate “a mechanism whereby doctrinal concepts may come to be intrinsically rewarding and motivate behavior in religious individuals.”
Researchers also recorded the emotions and physiological responses of participants, who reported feelings of warmth and peace and experienced increased heart rate and deeper breathing.
Anderson said this study can become part of a useful body of science because it begins to address age-old questions about religion and how it might affect human behavior.
“One of the greatest questions in society is how to understand the differences in belief that have driven both altruism and war for centuries,” Anderson said. “Are there shared representations in the brain of spiritual experiences that might foster understanding? Even when the messages of our gods differ, is the way we feel about beliefs and values common in the brain? More important, what are the differences between individuals and faith traditions that drive both prosocial and antisocial behaviors?”
Moving forward, Anderson said, “There is so much to learn. This is a new field and the tools are ready to make real advances.”
Anderson said, “We could identify precise neural circuitry associated with spiritual experiences, compare different cultural traditions in how their experiences are registered in the brain, and ultimately seek to understand more about ourselves by learning about the types of experiences that create meaning and shape behavior for billions of people.”