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Spiritual Experiences Appear to Affect Neural Reward Circuits

Nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and frontal attentional regions also affected

brain scan

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 30, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Religious experiences appear to trigger the brain's reward system as evidenced by radiological findings, according to a study published online Nov. 29 in Social Neuroscience.

Researchers conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans of 19 devout young adult churchgoers while they were doing activities meant to boost spiritual feelings. All of the participants had been Mormon missionaries.

Almost all said they'd experienced feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth during the experiment. Besides activating the brain's reward circuits, the spiritual feelings triggered activity in the nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and frontal attentional regions -- areas of the brain that handle tasks involving valuation, judgment, and moral reasoning.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine, or transcendent," senior author Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroradiologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said in a university news release. "Religious experience is perhaps the most influential part of how people make decisions that affect all of us, for good and for ill. Understanding what happens in the brain to contribute to those decisions is really important."

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