Quirks & Quarks

How religious fervour changes your brain

New research shows that Mormons really do "feel the spirit" and you can see it in a believer's brain.
The death mask of Joseph Smith is shown during a tour of the Mormon Church History Museum, in Salt Lake City. (The Associated Press)

What does it mean to "feel the spirit?" For members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, as they're often called, it translates into a specific physical feeling. In Mormon scripture it's called a "burning in the bosom." Most importantly, it's a feeling that Mormons associate with spiritual truth. 

In a small study, Dr. Michael Ferguson and a team of researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to try to understand what was happening in the brains of these devotees. It turns out that people who have deep spiritual feelings of God activate brain reward circuits - similar to those invoked by drugs, gambling, food, exercise.

What about other religious practices? Dr. Andrew Newberg's work in the field of "neuro-theology" encompasses many different faiths that approach prayer and ritual as an immersive act. Pentecostal Christians speaking in tongues, Brazilian mediums, Buddhist monks and devout Muslims often feel overcome and taken over by the spirit of their Gods.

It's not just purely religious though: the same brain activity can be seen in astronauts when they describe the "overview effect" - that singular feeling that's evoked by seeing the planet from a distance.   

Dr. Newberg says that research of this nature speaks to the larger idea that there's a dynamic network of structures in the brain that are called up during spiritual states.   

Looking down on Earth from space. (NASA )

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