Prayer triggers brain rewards

The spiritual feeling of being relaxed, centered, reassured and grounded that many people of faith describe may now be supported by science.

"Religion is one of the most important influences on people's behavior," said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, an associate professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah. "What we wanted to understand is what's happening in the brain while somebody has a religious or spiritual experience."

To find out "what's happening," Dr. Anderson conducted a research study with a group of devout Mormons. They agreed to have their brains scanned with MRI machines while they were watching videos or reading about spiritual things. They talked about feelings of peace and physical sensations of warmth. Researchers said some were in tears by the end of the scan. The regions of the brain that lit up were part of the reward circuit of the brain.

"We learned that there are characteristic regions of the brain that are active when somebody has a spiritual or religious experience," Dr. Anderson said.

The study shows scientific proof that something physically happens in the brain when we pray or have a spiritual experience. Maybe it seems obvious, but that something makes us feel better.

"It's been hypothesized that religious experience is a reward trigger for the brain but we weren't expecting to see it so robust," Dr. Anderson said. "This is an area that's also active when people experience reward from music, or from romantic or parental love, from drugs like cocaine or methamphetamines. And this places religious experience in that same class of rewarding experiences."

Dr. Anderson was intrigued by what happens to our brains we pray because so many of us make key life decision based on our spiritual beliefs.

"People make a lot of really important decisions based on these spiritual feelings and we'd like to understand how do those arise?" Dr. Anderson said. "Are they conditioning, in a sense? Do we have a stimulus that produces a response and is that a reason why people come to believe the things that they do?"

Pastor A.R. Bernard oversees the Christian Cultural Center mega church in Brooklyn. He believes in the study's findings of a body and spirit connection.

"We make decisions with our head and calculate but at the end of the day it's how we feel deep in our gut that determine the path that we take," Bernard said.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan said he also believes in the study's findings. He said he thinks prayer can be transformative.

"It gives you a sense of peace. There is a connection -- it's not just the physical body -- the mental activity every human being has a soul and that manifests itself," Schneier said. "When you are engaged in prayer you just cut out every negative, harmful impact on your physical and emotional wellbeing."

The study is part of the Religious Brain Project at the University of Utah. While the study only looked at Mormons, researchers believe their findings would be replicated in any religion. The plan is to study other religions in the future.