My Facebook feed lit up today with links to media reports of an article just published in the online journal Social Neuroscience, “Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religions experience in devout Mormons.” You can guess why I’m linking to the actual article rather than the media reports. Fake news, real news, it all sounds like junk news. Just read the article.
Here’s what the researchers did. They stuck 19 LDS returned missionaries (seven women, twelve men) into an MRI unit (uh, one at a time) and exposed them to religious stimuli for a few minutes: CS Lewis quotes (misattributed to LDS and Christian speakers), short Book of Mormon scriptural quotes, short LDS video clips, and participant prayer. Control stimuli were the LDS statistical and financial reports (who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?) and a state of rest. While exposed to these religious and control stimuli, participants self-reported “feeling the Spirit” and feelings of spiritual meaningfulness on a scale of 1 (not feeling) to 4 (very strong feeling).
Here’s what the researchers observed and reported in their discussion of results.
We demonstrated in a group of devout Mormons that religious experience, identified as “feeling the Spirit,” was associated with consistent brain activation across individuals within bilateral nucleus accumbens, frontal attentional, and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci. Brain regions associated with representation of reward were reproducibly activated in four distinct acquisitions using three experimental paradigms, with activation immediately preceding peak spiritual feelings identified by the participants by 1–3 s.
The paper reports that other researchers have done similar brain activity experiments testing the effects of religious experience or stimuli on brain behavior. What is new in these findings seems to be activity in the nucleus accumbens (which has its own Wikipedia entry if you really need to know more). Here is the passage you ought to read carefully before hitting “like” on your zealous relative’s Facebook post.
Nucleus accumbens activity has been observed during several conditions of acutely positive affect including maternal and romantic love, appreciation of music, and as a common pathway for chemically altered euphoric states associated with many drugs of abuse, including cocaine and methamphetamines.
What that means: A variety of potent stimuli produce “acutely positive affect” (the subjective “wow, I’m really feelin’ it”) which correlates with increased brain activity at the nucleus accumbens. Spiritually inclined LDS returned missionaries (the researchers screened out the not-so-spiritual respondents) self-reported this acutely positive affect as “feeling the Spirit.” I assume those reporting acutely positive affect from listening to music, doing love and romance, and being high on drugs used different terms and expressions.
So don’t be deceived by misleading media reports. This study is about what goes on in the brains of spiritually inclined LDS RMs as they report feeling the Spirit when exposed to religiously evocative stimuli. It is not about the Holy Ghost activating the nucleus accumbens in human brains.
Now if you really must read the media reports on the article I linked to and summarized above, here they are.
- At CNN: Religious thoughts trigger reward systems like love, drugs
- At SL Trib: Study shows Mormons’ brains light up when they ‘feel the Spirit’
- At Vozes Mormons, in Portuguese but with a very nice embedded video discussion by the lead researcher: Neurocientistas Estudam Mórmons ‘Sentindo o Espírito’
- And the SLC Fox affiliate gets the prize for misleading overstatement: U of U Study: Prayer feels as good as sex for members of LDS Church
In closing, I offer my suggestion for a follow-up study examining brain activity in randomly selected Mormons during sacrament meeting. The five activities to be observed and correlated with brain activity in the nucleus accumbens or elsewhere: carefully listening to the speakers; snoozing during the speakers; reading a religiously-themed book while trying to ignore the speakers; reading a non-religiously-themed book while trying to ignore the speakers; and accessing football scores and highlights on a tablet or cell phone while trying to ignore the speakers. I predict a quiet brain during sleep, a mildly active brain during listening and reading, and heightened activity in brain reward centers while accessing football scores and highlights (just like prayer and watching LDS video clips!). I interpret these predicted results as supporting the idea that football is correlated with feeling the Spirit.