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Religious Thoughts Trigger Similar Reward System Effects As Love And Drugs

Update Date: Nov 30, 2016 09:11 AM EST

Statistics have shown that 89 percent of Americans believe in God. A new study shows that people who have religious thoughts are likely to experience similar effects as love and drugs as a similar reward system is triggered in the brain.

"These are areas of the brain that seem like they should be involved in a religious and spiritual experience. But yet, religious neuroscience is such a young field -- and there are very few studies -- and ours was the first study that showed activation of the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain that processes reward," said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a neuroradiologist at the University of Utah and lead author of the study, according to a CNN report.

For the study, researchers from the University of Utah conducted MRI scans to monitor the brain activities of 19 young devout Mormons. This was done while they carried out various daily activities such as watching a church announcement about financial reports, resting, reading quotations from non-Mormon religious leaders, praying and reading the Bible.

The group, consisting of 12 men and 7 women, were asked to press a button if they "felt the spirit". After analyzing the MRI reports, researchers noted that a certain section of the brain lit up whenever the study participants had religious thoughts. The researchers found that these were the same sections of the brain that lit up when participants of previous studies listened to music, felt loved and took drugs.

In an interview, Anderson pointed out that though it is a known fact that millions of people make decisions based on religious thoughts and spiritual experiences, this is one of the few studies that look into how the brain participates in these experiences. He also noted that when religious thoughts are put in the context of the brain's reward system, religious training can induce feelings of reward in response to doctrines or ideals or religious leaders.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates emotion, movement, feelings of pleasure and motivation. When the reward system it triggered, it basically means that the circuit in our brains is flooded with dopamine. If this happens at normal levels, it rewards our natural behaviors. When the reward system is overstimulated, it produces euphoric effects, leading to addiction.

Findings of the current study were published in the journal Social Neuroscience. The research was funded by the Davis Endowed Chair in Radiology, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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