Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?
Medicine Science Technology

Religious Experiences Have Similar Effect On Brain As Taking Drugs, Study Finds ( 228

A new study published in the journal Social Neuroscience finds through functional MRI scans that religious and spiritual experiences can trigger reward systems like love and drugs. "These are areas of the brain that seem like they should be involved in 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. CNN reports: For the study, 19 devout young adult Mormons had their brains scanned in fMRI machines while they completed various tasks. The tasks included resting for six minutes, watching a six-minute church announcement about membership and financial reports, reading quotations from religious leaders for eight minutes, engaging in prayer for six minutes, reading scripture for eight minutes, and watching videos of religious speeches, renderings of biblical scenes and church member testimonials. During the tasks, participants were asked to indicate when they were experiencing spiritual feelings. As the researchers analyzed the fMRI scans taken of the participants, they took a close look at the degree of spiritual feelings each person reported and then which brain regions were simultaneously activated. The researchers found that certain brain regions consistently lit up when the participants reported spiritual feelings. The brain regions included the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward; frontal attentional, which is associated with focused attention; and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci, associated with moral reasoning, Anderson said. Since the study results were seen only in Mormons, Anderson said, more research is needed to determine whether similar findings could be replicated in people of other faiths, such as Catholics or Muslims.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Religious Experiences Have Similar Effect On Brain As Taking Drugs, Study Finds

Comments Filter:
  • by Patent Lover ( 779809 ) on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @08:30PM (#53389737)
    ...taking drugs has a similar effect on the brain as having a religious experience. Without the guilt.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @08:55PM (#53389871)

      Except that with drugs you (usually) know you're just tripping (at least pre and post event), whereas religious people seem to think that what they experience/believe is actually real. Think "Oh my god I saw pink talking bunnies" vs "god told me to circumcise my son/daughter".

      • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

        by gweihir ( 88907 )

        Religious people have a problem with separating fantasy from reality. What else is new?

        If these people were not willing to kill, maim (circumcision of people unable to give informed consent very much counts) and slaughter to support their fantasy, it would not be much of a problem.

    • by ls671 ( 1122017 )

      But, but, it costs me way too much money...

      So, with this breaking new knowledge, I am starting to look for a religion that is going to cost me less...

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Buddhism Without Beliefs [] is where I started...

    • ...taking drugs has a similar effect on the brain as having a religious experience. Without the guilt.

      I note that everyone seems to be ignoring the non-clickbait part of the summary. Religious experiences affect the brain the way drugs and love do....

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        Indeed. As love is an unauthorized surrogate for a religious experience, it must immediately be outlawed and punished harshly. Life in jail seems too good for these criminal elements.

        • by arth1 ( 260657 )

          Indeed. As love is an unauthorized surrogate for a religious experience,

          Love is a driver for the evolutionary drive to procreate.
          Religion is an effect of the evolutionary drive to avoid death.
          While both are delusions, one still serves a useful purpose, while the other is now a dead end. Where it earlier could have a positive net effect of groups of humans protecting each other and each others' offspring, in modern society with ultimate mobility religion has become a cause of death more than a deterrent.

          We may one day evolve into not needing either delusion, but we're not there

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      You know, that is probably the whole real justification for the "war on drugs": Getting rid of competition that has a better product. Tragic.

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        Religion generally is largely opposed to drugs because they threaten the religious leadership's monopoly on spiritual experiences.

        The Christians mostly co-opted alcohol consumption into their religious practices because it was already culturally endemic in the areas where organized Christianity took root and their religious orders often turned production of alcoholic beverages into an economic asset. Of course later Protestant denominations often rejected alcohol, too, although it's muddier as to whether

        • by Tranzistors ( 1180307 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2016 @07:56AM (#53391787)

          Cool story, bro. Any citations?

          • by swb ( 14022 )

            I can't remember the title, but what I posted largely came from a somewhat academic history of drug use in America I read last year.

            Another interesting factoid -- smoking opium was the predominant form of illicit opioid use into the late 1920s, despite the obvious notion that more concentrated preparations like laudanum, morphine and heroin had been widely available and generally unrestricted until 1914. Most notably smoking opium remained dominant even after the restrictions of the Harrison Anti-Narcotic

        • "The Christians mostly co-opted alcohol consumption into their religious practices because it was already culturally endemic"

          Wine and strong drink are well documented in the Christian Bible, and from times long before Christianity came to be. Some Hebrew sects rejected alcohol also, most notable manifested in Samson, a Nazarite at birth. Even his mother abstained after visitation by an angel.

          Alcohol was an issue for Jews well before Christ, and well before Israel even.

          For all the declarations of understandi

    • I initially thought the headline read "Religious Experiences Have Similar Effect On Brain As Taking a Dump."

  • by ThatsNotPudding ( 1045640 ) on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @08:32PM (#53389743)
    "Religion is a helluva drug." And far more destructive than heroin.
  • Opiates (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @08:34PM (#53389753)

    You could say it's the opiate of the people.

  • If you pray, you're basically circumventing drug access controls. Also, cerebrospinal fluid should be banned due to its DMT content (not to mention vision problems in space).
    • by quenda ( 644621 )

      We can try banning religion just as soon as the War on Drugs is won.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      You have it backwards. The whole "war on drugs" is an attempt by religion to kill competition from a better product. Organized religion is behind this.

    • If you pray, you're basically circumventing drug access controls. Also, cerebrospinal fluid should be banned due to its DMT content (not to mention vision problems in space).

      You're asking the wrong question. You should be asking "So why are drugs still illegal?"

  • Small Sample Size (Score:5, Informative)

    by DERoss ( 1919496 ) on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @08:51PM (#53389831)

    Only 19 persons were tested. All were from the same religion. There was no control set of non-religious individuals tested to see if the MRI scans were indeed representative of "religious and spiritual experience".

    Most important, the Slashdot headline "Religious Experiences Have Similar Effect On Brain As Taking Drugs, Study Finds " differs from the title of the original study report. In the original report, the title is "Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons", clearly limiting the scope of the study to one religion.

    • Didn't control for magic underpants as well.
    • The summary of the article explicitly mentioned the limits of the study and the need to broaden it. See final sentence. Nothing underhanded here.
    • I love how the one intelligent, skeptical comment on a site full of "skeptics" is always half-way down. You'd think "skeptics" would be more skeptical of everything. Turns out, they're just skeptical of things threatening to their ego. But their egos are just as threatened as everyone else's apparently. In other words, they're just as religious as religious people, they're just meaner and smarter at being mean.

      "Ha ha! Look at these stupid religiouses!"

      "The study was poor science."

      "The study is still correct

    • Of course the study was limited to one religion. The sample size was small.
      Of course the sample size was small, putting 19 people through an MRI imaging an area over and over in different scenarios costs real money.
      Of course there was no ability to extend this due to a lack of funding.
      Of course there's a lack of funding because science is just garbage making conclusions from small sample sizes and insufficient control groups.

      I suppose you'd only be happy if we abandon all science completely.

  • One conclusion that might come out of this is that it's sometimes appropriate to treat religion as an illness, as drug addictions are treated. Now, this is done today for some people in cults, generally by their relatives and against their will. It brings up all sorts of problems regarding freedom of belief. For some people, religion appears to be a beneficial part of their personality. When does it become an illness?

    Before you dismiss this, consider how many people historically, and today, are killed for r

    • Another conclusion is that we shouldn't make all that much out of small functional MRI studies done by random researchers since they're hard to do correctly.

      Of course, we could also use a dead fish [] as a control.

    • by borcharc ( 56372 ) *

      Or the conclusion that we should leave the drug users and religious people alone. For at least one very large subset of drug users, it basically already is a religion. They have music, dancing, community, charity, and pilgrimages. Let adults live the life they choose.

    • That conclusion can no more come out of this research than could the idea that listening to music is an illness.

      The research simply said that people reporting a positive experience showed activity in the reward centers of their brains. Big surprise! Hey, going outside in the sunshine activates the reward center of my brain, maybe that's an illness too.

      The slashdot headline is there because people who are irrational and partisan want to ignore what the research actually said and use lies about it to bludgeon

      • by Bruce Perens ( 3872 ) <> on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @11:45PM (#53390543) Homepage Journal

        If you look at the report, even at the start they state:

        doctrinal concepts may come to be intrinsically rewarding and motivate behavior in religious individuals.

        and at the end

        Ultimately, the pairing of classical reward responses with abstract religious ideation may indicate a brain mechanism for attachment to doctrinal concepts and charismatic in-group religious leaders.

        So, this is stated very carefully in scientific language, but what they are discussing is how religious ideation and the following of religious leaders can bypass rational centers of the brain and create a self-reward loop in which these acts become their own reward.

        It doesn't seem to me that it's being a bully to be concerned with why religion leads some people to kill and prompts others to acts of violence and oppression. The study is a start toward an answer. One could connect this study, for example, with the Stanford Prison Experiment, and research whether the same reward mechanisms were activated. Leader-following and an in-group were involved in the Stanford student's behavior. Do self-rewarding loops of religious ideation and leader-following reinforce such behavior?

        • by jensend ( 71114 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2016 @12:35AM (#53390665)

          Ultimately, the pairing of classical reward responses when hearing music with learning a smattering of music theory may indicate a brain mechanism for greater music appreciation. So what?

          That's not "bypassing rational centers of the brain and creating a loop." It's simply "these people had a positive experience and there were ideas that were associated with that positive experience." If anything, the fact that brain regions which are active in moral reasoning were especially active in these people suggests the opposite of "bypassing rational centers."

          You've conveniently ignored the actual data and results of their study entirely and instead taken a couple of speculative comments ("here's an idea, please fund us") out of context and twisted them.

          The old baloney about religion being a primary cause of violence is a ridiculous urban legend. Ultimately you can trace the exaggerations back to centuries-old partisan tracts. Actual historians (e.g. Encyclopedia of Wars) find religiously motivated wars to be roughly 2% of the total death count.

          If what you get out of the Shoah is that Hitler was right on both counts - Judaism is a disease, as is Christianity - there's something fundamentally wrong, not just with your understanding of history but with you.

          The Inquisition killed about 3,000 people over the course of 350 years. (Secular courts, of course, killed people at a much faster rate.) For some perspective, the Great Leap Forward killed 30,000,000 people in 3 years.

          • The assertion that the Inquisition only killed 3000 can't take into account the repeated forced migrations of the oppressed populations. It's sort of like saying the Trail of Tears only moved people. And we need only look at the Syrian refugee crisis today. And please don't imply that it's no problem because Mao was worse.

          • The Inquisition killed about 3,000 people over the course of 350 years.

            "The inquisition" comprises a combined series of undertakings beginning with Pope Lucius III's instigation in 1184 CE and terminating in 1834 CE - a span of about 650 years. The Spanish Inquisition was one chapter of this, but by no means can be reasonably considered an isolated or peak event.

            Perhaps you'll find this of interest. []

            Historically speaking, Christianity, between the inquisitions, the crusades, the pograms, blood libel, and jus

            • by jensend ( 71114 )

              That guy may know Prolog but he doesn't know history. The vast majority of his citations are 19th-century Protestant anti-Catholic tracts, with one of his few 20th-century sources being a conspiracy-theorist type Baptist missionary writing in 1960.

      • by arth1 ( 260657 )

        That conclusion can no more come out of this research than could the idea that listening to music is an illness.

        It probably is, at that.
        Both religion and music might have conferred evolutionary net advantages at one point, which explains the existence.
        Both music and religion might have served to keep bands of nomads together, increasing survival chances through mutual protection.
        The rhythm part of music might also have served to increase our mobility, adding the ability to pace. That we prefer tempos in the range we do is notable.
        Harmony might be a side effect of our brains greatly enhanced pattern recognition abili

  • They might be quite similar. Irony.

  • by danlip ( 737336 ) on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @08:58PM (#53389899)

    Sounds like Marx was right about that.

  • Similar Effect On Brain As Taking Drugs, Study Finds

    So does sport, sex, good food, and so on. Anything satisfying acts like a drug, without the drug side effects.

  • by GerryGilmore ( 663905 ) on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @09:00PM (#53389917)
    ...had this nailed decades ago! "I used to be all messed up on drugs, man. Now, I'm all messed up on the Lord!"
  • is usually what I say from certain weed that gives me hardcore munchies and makes me pig out. On the other hand first time I did shrooms a few months back and was like damn should have done this 20 years ago, mind you a bad acid trip at a night club put me off psychedelics so never go to shrooms. Good combo 1 gram of shrooms in chocolate and some spiced rum and a bit of MDAM + watching Star Trek.

  • by Snotnose ( 212196 ) on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @09:05PM (#53389953)
    Think 60s/70s. Went twice on Sunday, then Wed night. I was 10 or 11 when I started asking questions that got answered by "ya gotta have faith". Um, if I had faith I wouldn't be asking these questions.

    Older I got the more I hated church. Not gonna lie, there were a lot of days when I thought about opening the car door and jumping out of the car. On the freeway. To this day I don't dress up, nor do I sing in public.

    Then Wizard of Oz was shown on Wednesdays for a few years in a row. I'd heard a lot about it, never seen it, wanted to see it. But no, I had to go to church Wednesday nights, cuz reasons.

    Moved out when I was 18. Only time I've been in a church since was when mom died 4 years ago. Dad keeps asking me to go to church with him, I demurr, he doesn't understand why I won't go.

    During my 20's and half my 30's, whenever I found someone was religious I'd goad them. Actively tried to piss them off. I grew out of that.

    I think if you have a rational, questioning mind, church is either a social thing or pure BS.
  • Opium (Score:3, Insightful)

    by StormReaver ( 59959 ) on Tuesday November 29, 2016 @09:06PM (#53389955)

    So we have conclusive proof that religion really is the opiate of the masses.

    • So we have conclusive proof that religion really is the opiate of the masses.

      and we had it already 6 threads above..

  • Cheech and Chong noticed this years ago.... []

  • Fuck religion! I'd rather take a bong hit.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I grew up in a Mormon (LDS) family, and don't remember too many significant feelings of the sort mentioned in the article. I eventually concluded the church was pulling my leg and dropped out.

    However, I once was visiting Utah on an informal tour of "important" LDS buildings, and had a strange feeling that brought me back to the days when I did believe. It was sort of euphoric relief that an omnipotent father figure "has our back" and that we, the LDS, are on the good team. It's roughly comparable to your t

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I grew up an odd mix of RC and evangelical. Very devout. I genuinely believed until my early 20s and then experienced a very abrupt 'loss of faith' that triggered a disintegration of sense of self, so deeply was that belief ingrained and so central was religion to my life.

      In attempting to define my self without reference to church or god, I recognised that I had a pattern of thought, a mind-model as you say, that was shaped to fit religion and it was going to take a while before that could change. In the m

  • At least with drugs you may voluntarily find a way to quit, and people are here to help you do that. Most of the religious people I know are so deeply and blindly involved in their own beliefs that nobody may change their mind, ever.
  • We have RainBow Dash.


    of course religious experiences trigger the reward bits of the brain


  • by bluegutang ( 2814641 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2016 @02:19AM (#53390917)

    Don't ALL subjectively enjoyable experiences have the same effect on the brain, releasing dopamine and serotonin, and activating particular pathways? Not only religion and drugs, but also sex and chocolate and cat videos and the election of your preferred candidate?

  • Grass is green (Score:3, Interesting)

    by m76 ( 3679827 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2016 @04:38AM (#53391223)

    So they discovered that participating in what they have been brought up to rejoice and be in awe of actually causes them joy. I'd be more surprised if the result were the opposite.

    That's why people sign up and most never get rid of these delusions because it makes them feel good about themselves. They realize that santa and the easter bunny are not real, somehow they can't do the same thing with their deity and it's prophets.

  • by Qbertino ( 265505 ) <> on Wednesday November 30, 2016 @05:18AM (#53391305)

    In my teens I praticed meditation in general and, more specifically, what is called "astral projection", basically inducing out-of-body-experiences. I practiced it for six years just about every evening. In the end I finally made it, achieving that higher state of mind, where you experience the buzzing and humming, your body shrinking and your soul expanding and see "the tunnel" and such. It's the most intense state of being I've ever experienced and I doubt any drug can push you further. You're basically hyper-awake while it happens. And it's scary. Turns out we don't like to leave our body most of the time. :-)

    The difference in state of mind and awareness compared to normal as normal compares to vivid, semi-lucent dreaming. I stopped it after this event, but one effect is that I don't fear death as much as I used to.

    I cant say for sure that we are still around after death, like the mystics like to point out, but it sure felt like it.

    My 2 cents.

    • by ledow ( 319597 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2016 @08:44AM (#53392075) Homepage


      I never get why we have to overblow this.

      Do you know, I drove home last night and have no memory of doing so? Automatic pilot, driven by my brain, while I thought of "higher" things.

      I changed gear, negotiated roundabouts, kept to speed limits, stopped for pedestrians and red lights and navigated home without giving it a single conscious thought.

      I also know that every night I fall unconscious, hallucinate vividly and then have complete amnesia about the whole event if I'm not interrupted before my brain is finished with it. It's called dreaming.

      If I was sitting in a room for six years trying to do something, my brain would hallucinate the same (that's not meant to be an insulting word, it's quite literally what imagination and dreaming are) and believe I was outside my body. Yet, nobody, ever, in any controlled experiment, even when saying they ARE in that "special place" has ever demonstrated knowledge of, say, what's on top of the dresser behind them that they couldn't see from inside their body, or similar. You can even awake completely relaxed, unstressed, energised, without even having an hour's rest if you've had the right dream.

      In the same way as out-of-body near-death experiences and suchlike, attributing it to some other existence seems, to me, to be entirely insulting to the capacity of the human mind under normal circumstances.

      We have composers who see colours, artists who can paint pictures that don't complete until the final brush stroke but they can see it in their head in vivid detail, and story-writers who live in their heads most of their lives even if they can't write it down to save their life.

      When the brain is then deprived of sensory information, and forced to entertain itself, it's no wonder that such experiences happen. To push them to "something else" rather than "Woah, my brain is capable of stupendous feats" is, I feel, condescending.

      It doesn't require a supernatural explanation, or even comment. We've probably all done more amazing things in our sleep, or driving home from work.

      Hell, I dreamed a "movie" from start to finish in twenty minutes of being asleep one night and still, to this day, I like to fold back into that dream or even write it down (which has taken YEARS of my life to do so). My brain was on-form that night, and I awoke exhilarated and haven't forgotten that experienced in 20+ years.

      I really find it annoying when people then - as you just did - write it off as supernatural and, having "mastered" it in what sounds like a repeatable way, then ignore it and never do it again for fear of... what? Discovering some truth? Angering some god?

      What if that's the way to escape the Matrix? What if that's the way to gain insight from your own mind on things nobody else has ever managed? What if that is the way to Heaven/Hell or whatever?

      As someone of a scientific mind (can't you tell?), it drives me mad that people get near the equivalent of the next level of human existence, then never repeat it, wrap it in crap like "astral projection" and meditation, and basically forget it ever happened.

      If it made you not fear death, surely you could do it again and be less scared, and not fear dying in the process?

      But, maybe that would then conflict if - actually - it turns out just to have been a particularly vivid dream?

  • Religious experiences also have some of the hallmarks of mental illness. I suppose the DSM IV should have criteria like this: Did the voice in your head identify itself as God? Yes? Phew, you're not schizophrenic and have nothing to worry about.
  • First of all, I'd like to distinguish between what is called a religious experience and what might be called a spiritual experience. Lets not flame this please. Many years ago, I went to a meditation camp let by Pir Vilyat Khan, the sufi leader in the US. This was held in an open air tent with a couple of hundred people. At one time, we chanted the Zhikr. The actual transation of the words were unimportant (I don't speak arabic), but the sounds resonate. I found myself having an experience as som
    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      Can you please distinguish between religious and spiritual when your own explanation contains:

      "who is watching the watcher"

      It sounds immensely like you belief you hit an existence controlled or observed by an entity other than known ones. Sounds exactly like a religion to me!

      Honestly, I'm not being facetious here... what's the difference? Absence of a belief-in-god does not make something non-religious. Absence of knowledge of any-god-or-not doesn't either.

      What's the difference between spiritual and reli

      • by gordona ( 121157 )
        I don't attribute a spiritual experience to a divine or higher being. I really don't know how to explain what I experienced. I never had a sense of another outside of myself. I don't think or ascribe it to a religious experience. My experience with religion has been less than satisfactory over the years. This is the kind of thing that is beyond normal waking experiences. Yet I was awake during the chanting, maintaining a kneeling position with my back straight--difficult to do if one is sleeping.
  • Religious folks have been claiming for years that they help people feel more loved. That prayer can help you feel better and to form a bond with god. Also, they claim has been made for many years that part of the reason we experience that feeling is because we were created for relationship with God.

    So nice to see some scientific confirmation that praying and loving feel good.

By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve. -- Robert Frost