Feelings of religious devotion evoked by prayer, scripture reading and other spiritual practices may be connected directly to parts of the brain that process feelings of reward, according to a new study.
The authors suggest the possibility of “a mechanism whereby doctrinal concepts may come to be intrinsically rewarding and motivate behavior in religious individuals,” according to the study published in November in the journal Social Neuroscience.
Those findings are hardly new to pastors and other ministers who guide the spiritual development of others.
“I would not be surprised … if feelings of devotion were associated with some kind of reward in the brain,” said Angela Reed, assistant professor of practical theology and director of spiritual formation at Baylor University.
“People often identify experiences of joy and peace — the fruits of the spirit in Galatians — as being associated with the time and commitment they make for devotional practices, being alone in prayer, in small groups and in worship,” she said.
During those activities, people are generally more open to the presence and movement of the spirit, Reed said.
“That gives them a sense of reward that God is in it.”
The University of Utah team that produced the paper studied 19 devout Mormon men and women. The subjects were placed in a magnetic resonance imaging machine, or MRI, as they prayed, read from the Book of Mormon and other practices.
It found that these activities were connected to the nucleus accumbens, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and frontal attentional regions, according to the study.
And it doesn’t stop with religion.
“Similar feelings are described in association with romantic and parental love, reward and drug-induced euphoric states, suggesting common neural mechanisms for these experiences,” the authors found.
But even if science one day concludes that a link exists in the brain between religious action and reward, it doesn’t mean every believer will experience those emotions, Reed said.
“It’s not a given.”
In fact it’s common for people who do their devotions, say their prayers and engage in worship not to experience positive emotions as a result, she said.
Mother Teresa and Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, author of the poem “Dark Night of the Soul,” are high profile examples of Christians who at times felt an absence of positive emotions — or reward — during their ministries.
Reed said she’s concerned the research could mislead some into thinking they will reap intense and consistent emotional rewards by engaging in certain spiritual practices.
Another group who struggle are pastors who feel as if God has deserted them, said Reed, who counsels ministers in spiritual formation.
“They ask ‘what is wrong with me, am I doing something wrong, is there some kind of sin in my life to keep me from sensing the joy and presence of God in my life?’”
The solution for all of those who don’t get feelings of reward from religious activities is to forge on, anyway, Reed said. “Don’t give up.”
“When we have that time when we can no longer depend on the good feelings, that’s actually a sign of maturity,” she said. “At least that’s my hope.”