U of U Study: Religious thoughts trigger same reward systems as love, drugs, music and sex


SALT LAKE CITY — A new study at The University of Utah shows that Mormon religious experiences and sex both stimulate the same parts of the brain.

“These types of regions in the brain activate during sex, romantic and parental love, winning at gambling, drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines, really their core pleasure enduring circuits in the brain,” explained the study’s lead author Jeffrey Anderson, an associate professor of radiology and bio-engineering.

Anderson and his associates took 19 devout Mormons between 20 and 30 years old, 12 men and seven women, and had them lie in an MRI machine while they focused on Mormon religious quotes, videos and asked them to pray. The study lasted one hour.

“Going into it I didn't understand how they were going to stimulate a spiritual experience because for me [spiritual experiences] are not planned. They are not scripted. It's something that just happens,” said 29-year-old Auriel Peterson, who was one of the participants in the study. “How are they going to extract that out of me so they can see the experience in the scan?”

While she questioned how the researchers were going to conduct the study, she was still willing to try it. She was successful and had three spiritual moments while inside the MRI.

“When I said ‘Oh my goodness. I am feeling it so strong. Something is happening’ that time they compared the scans and, from what I understand, they said it [the brain scan image] was lit up like Christmas lights, where lots of different parts of my brain were alive and releasing those feel good hormones,” said Peterson.

Peterson said she did not need a confirmation her spiritual moments were real, but she was satisfied with the picture of her brain showing the internal excitement.

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, as shown in this MRI from the University of Utah Health Sciences

Spiritual feelings trigger a reward circuit in the brain, as shown in this MRI from the University of Utah Health Sciences

“It's neat to be able to see the scan and understand that there is a picture of it, not just I am feeling it and I'm telling you about it, but there is a tangible way you can see there is something happening physically as a result of that experience,” said Peterson.

Anderson said his goal is to understand how the brain reacts in all different types of religious experiences, not just Mormons.

“Is it possible that a Lutheran woman in Minnesota reading the Bible and an ISIS fighter in Syria contemplating religious violence may activate the same brain regions, that it might feel the same way for vastly different religious ideologies?” explained Anderson. “Well we don't know that, that's what we need to find out.”

Other parts of the brain that were also impacted by the participants Mormon religious experiences were moral reasoning, and empathy.

Read the full study from the University of Utah here.

University of Utah researchers put 19 participants through religious experiences during an MRI scan.

University of Utah researchers put 19 participants through religious experiences during an MRI scan.