The reward centres of the brain light up in an fMRI scanner when devout Mormons report having religious experiences, researchers say. The study authors claim that understanding how religion and reward are interconnected could aid research into religious radicalisation.

The researchers studied 19 Mormons who were all former missionaries. They set out to see how the brains of these study participants responded when they were having a religious experience commonly described as "feeling the Spirit".

The participants were shown images, recordings and religious quotes from Mormon spiritual leaders and texts. They were asked to rate their spiritual feelings in response to each of them, while their brains were being scanned.

Love and drugs

Brain regions that the researchers said were associated with having religious experiences included the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in romantic love, appreciation of music, cocaine and methamphetamines.

"We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent," says paper author Jeff Anderson of the University of Utah. "In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia."

"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," says Anderson.

fMRI scanner
fMRI scans recorded brain activity as devoutly religious study participants read quotes from spiritual leaders or watched religious imagery Jeffrey Anderson

He questions whether the same neural circuitry could be involved in radicalisation and extremism.

"Maladaptive religious experiences can be shaped by the same stimuli," says Anderson. He argues that it is a "compelling hypothesis" that the same neural networks are involved in acts of religious extremism such as an Isis member contemplating religious violence.

Complex drivers

Katja Wiech, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, points out that religious belief is an extremely complex topic to study. She says that it's too soon to draw conclusions about the connection to reward and extremism based on this study.

"The topic of this study is a very complex experience. If you would ask somebody what's involved in a religious experience, it's a mixed bag of lots of different things," Wiech says.

"What we see in the brain when you put people in a scanner when they're experiencing this part of the religion, is that it's not something that is specific – these are regions of the brain that are involved in lots of different functions. None of them is the 'God spot'."

fMRI scan
Several brain regions become active when devoutly religious study participants reported having a spiritual experience, including a reward circuit, the nucleus accumbens Jeffrey Anderson

Altered state

Wiech says that understanding the individual motivations and drivers of extremist behaviour is likely to be more promising than studying connections to the reward centres in the brain that light up in such studies.

"When you look at extremism, it could be motivated by so many different factors. If you take somebody in a terror attack – their motivation to do it might not have anything to do with the rewarding aspect."

However, Wiech agrees that these kinds of studies are necessary in order to consider building scientific understanding of religious radicalisation.

"When you have religious experiences you can enter an altered state of consciousness. People really change the way they behave. So understanding the neurobiology behind [extremism] could tell us something about how people are willing to go so far."