The Brain Treats God Like Drugs or Sex

Being hooked on spirituality feels great, apparently.

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Nov 29 2016, 10:15am

If you're feeling the glory of God, could any earthly pleasure possibly compare?

Well, yes, actually.

A new study from The University of Utah shows that the human brain processes spiritual and religious fulfillment in a similar way as other pleasing experiences, including sexual activity and drug use.

Spiritual fulfillment provides a "hit" of neural dopamine like other, more worldly pleasures, says lead author Michael Ferguson, a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University. But there is also a significant difference between the two: Getting religious rewards in the brain requires a greater degree of "higher thought"—more abstract thinking on concepts like selfhood and morality. Meanwhile, substances "like sugar or cocaine...essentially hijack the brain's reward complex," Ferguson explains, adding that he hopes his studies in neurology with the Church of Latter-Day Saints will help to build a better understanding of the complex relationship between society, religion, and psychology.

The study subjected 19 young-adult members of the Mormon church (twelve male and seven female) to a series of tests designed to invoke feelings of spirituality. This included activities such as prayer, scriptural readings, and watching audio-video stimuli related to the Mormon church.  

The participants' brains were measured using an fMRI machine throughout. After completion, they then used a questionnaire to self-report their feelings—specifically, if they were "feeling the Spirit."

Researchers demonstrated that when participants were "feeling the Spirit," certain areas of the brain lit up with activity, including the ventral striatum (a reward center), and the nucleus accumbens—an area whose activity has been associated with romantic love, and is also "a common pathway for chemically altered euphoric states associated with many drugs of abuse, including cocaine and methamphetamines," Ferguson says.

What really gets those spiritual juices flowing? Ferguson says the most effective stimuli for "feeling the Spirit" were images of Jesus, families, and the participants' religious leaders. From scripture, he notes that the following passage from The Book of Mormon is particularly evocative:

"Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself."

Feeling better already, aren't you?