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"Lit Up Like Christmas Lights," The Spiritually Activated Brain

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

A new study released by researchers at the University of Utah takes a look at how Mormons respond to religious experiences. Specifically, what happens in their brain as they “feel the spirit.”

The study involved 19 active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All returned missionaries. And all of them spent an hour in an MRI machine, where they had time to pray, read scriptures and watch church produced videos.


Dr. Jeff Anderson headed the study and graphed where spikes in the brain coincide with testimonies in the video.


“You can see that some of the scenes from this video that were the most spiritual evocative were, 'I testify that this is God’s truth', 'We hope in Jesus Christ in the goodness of God,'” says Anderson.


The participants were told to push a button when they had a spiritual experience.


“About 1-3 seconds before they push that button, we saw a spike in activity in the brain," says Anderson. "In the nucleus accumbens, the reward center of the brain.”


It elicited a response similar to listening to music, feeling romantic love or even hard drug use.


Other areas lit up too, parts of the brain that deal with focused attention, moral reasoning and evaluation.


“Your whole brain lit up like Christmas lights," says Auriel Petersen, one of the participants in the study.


Petersen says she’s heard a lot of different reactions to the findings. There are those who feel this is simply evidence of classical conditioning. But for her, it’s more significant.


“For me personally it’s very meaningful to have a physical, tangible way to understand what is happening in myself when I say I’m having this spiritual experience," says Petersen.


Overall, these results just scratch the surface. And the research team hopes to expand future studies to include a variety of faiths and backgrounds.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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