Feelings of peace and closeness with God in oneself and others is a key part of Mormon life and many Mormons’ decision making.
Researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine created a series of tests that led participants to “feel the spirit”.
During hour long fMRI scans, 19 young-adult church members (seven female and 12 male), each a former missionary, were tasked with watching and listening to spiritual materials.
This included, among other prompts, 16 minutes of quotations by Mormon and religious leaders, eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon, 12 minutes of church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes.
After each short session, participants were asked how spiritual they felt. By the end of the scan, many were in tears, while almost all participants experienced feelings typical of an intense worship.
“When our study participants were instructed to think about a saviour, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,” said lead author Michael Ferguson, a bioengineering graduate student at the University of Utah.
The most interesting insight is that powerful spiritual feelings were “reproducibly associated with activation in the nucleus accumbens”.
That’s the region of the brain which processes reward, including when people have sex, listen to music or take drugs.