This Is Your Brain on Prayer

My Facebook feed lit up today with links to media reports of an article just published in the online journal Social Neuroscience, “Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religions experience in devout Mormons.” You can guess why I’m linking to the actual article rather than the media reports. Fake news, real news, it all sounds like junk news. Just read the article.

Here’s what the researchers did. They stuck 19 LDS returned missionaries (seven women, twelve men) into an MRI unit (uh, one at a time) and exposed them to religious stimuli for a few minutes: CS Lewis quotes (misattributed to LDS and Christian speakers), short Book of Mormon scriptural quotes, short LDS video clips, and participant prayer. Control stimuli were the LDS statistical and financial reports (who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?) and a state of rest. While exposed to these religious and control stimuli, participants self-reported “feeling the Spirit” and feelings of spiritual meaningfulness on a scale of 1 (not feeling) to 4 (very strong feeling).

Here’s what the researchers observed and reported in their discussion of results.

We demonstrated in a group of devout Mormons that religious experience, identified as “feeling the Spirit,” was associated with consistent brain activation across individuals within bilateral nucleus accumbens, frontal attentional, and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci. Brain regions associated with representation of reward were reproducibly activated in four distinct acquisitions using three experimental paradigms, with activation immediately preceding peak spiritual feelings identified by the participants by 1–3 s.

The paper reports that other researchers have done similar brain activity experiments testing the effects of religious experience or stimuli on brain behavior. What is new in these findings seems to be activity in the nucleus accumbens (which has its own Wikipedia entry if you really need to know more). Here is the passage you ought to read carefully before hitting “like” on your zealous relative’s Facebook post.

Nucleus accumbens activity has been observed during several conditions of acutely positive affect including maternal and romantic love, appreciation of music, and as a common pathway for chemically altered euphoric states associated with many drugs of abuse, including cocaine and methamphetamines.

What that means: A variety of potent stimuli produce “acutely positive affect” (the subjective “wow, I’m really feelin’ it”) which correlates with increased brain activity at the nucleus accumbens. Spiritually inclined LDS returned missionaries (the researchers screened out the not-so-spiritual respondents) self-reported this acutely positive affect as “feeling the Spirit.” I assume those reporting acutely positive affect from listening to music, doing love and romance, and being high on drugs used different terms and expressions.

So don’t be deceived by misleading media reports. This study is about what goes on in the brains of spiritually inclined LDS RMs as they report feeling the Spirit when exposed to religiously evocative stimuli. It is not about the Holy Ghost activating the nucleus accumbens in human brains.

Now if you really must read the media reports on the article I linked to and summarized above, here they are.

In closing, I offer my suggestion for a follow-up study examining brain activity in randomly selected Mormons during sacrament meeting. The five activities to be observed and correlated with brain activity in the nucleus accumbens or elsewhere: carefully listening to the speakers; snoozing during the speakers; reading a religiously-themed book while trying to ignore the speakers; reading a non-religiously-themed book while trying to ignore the speakers; and accessing football scores and highlights on a tablet or cell phone while trying to ignore the speakers. I predict a quiet brain during sleep, a mildly active brain during listening and reading, and heightened activity in brain reward centers while accessing football scores and highlights (just like prayer and watching LDS video clips!). I interpret these predicted results as supporting the idea that football is correlated with feeling the Spirit.

23 comments for “This Is Your Brain on Prayer

  1. Those headlines are really garbage aren’t they?

    I kind of assume that any feeling should have _some_ sort of manifestation in an MRI. But these studies always seem pretty low on explanation and high on mapping.

  2. Reminds me of Arthur “Killer” Kane in the documentary New York Doll, comparing feeling the spirit to a drug high.

    Or, for that matter, to my own spiritual-like experience when I heard my favorite song for the first time.

  3. Nothing says a ” good example of terrible social science” like “n=19” and “functional MRI….”. A disaster in pseudo science.

  4. Using a criterion valid approach would have strengthened their findings. They could compare the Nucleus accumbens activity they observed with emotional response. In other words: if the participant was in tears, they could confirm that they were feeling the spirit. That’s the test we all use anyway, isn’t it? Who needs fMRI?

  5. I imagine you’ll ruffle some feathers with this, but I feel like you’re interpreting the study correctly when you write that “It is not about the Holy Ghost activating the nucleus accumbens in human brains.” I’m sure we can pick at the study’s methodology, but I feel strongly that appealing aesthetic/cultural factors are often confused with communication from the Holy Ghost (see the myriad videos on the Church’s YouTube channel of General Authorities voices played over a soft piano).

    That’s not to say a conference talk cannot invite the spirit in, but I think mainstream, Deseret Book/Mormon Channel-bred Church culture has been developed and is presented to us in such a way so as to trigger the emotional responses we call feeling the spirit. If you’ve ever heard a live acoustic rock set at an evangelical Christian service, that’s what I’m getting at. Here’s an interesting-looking (haven’t read yet) article that appears to speak to that:

  6. Michael H, you are correct. The 21st-century gospel comes with a soundtrack.

    For more on this theme, read the essay by Armand Mauss, “Feelings, Faith, and Folkways: A Person Essay on Mormon Popular Culture.” It’s a chapter in the book Proving Contraries: A Collection of Writings in Honor of Eugene England (Signature Books, 2005). Here is a paragraph from the essay. Mauss uses the now ever-present box of tissues under Mormon pulpits to symbolize the newer feelings-based approach so popular now in LDS teaching and speaking.

    It is as though the tissue box symbolizes a more frequent resort to tender feelings at the expense of an earlier greater reliance on intellectual substance in preaching. It symbolizes the triumph of feeling over understanding; of a softer worship style over a harder one; perhaps of an evangelical — or even pentecostal — homiletic over an analytical style; of personalized adaptations of scripture over appreciation of historical context. It represents the triumph of the heart over the head in popular Latter-day Saint religious expression.

  7. “U of U Study: Prayer feels as good as sex for members of LDS Church.” I’d like to bear my testimony that this is totally not true!

    I do suspect, though, that many Mormons have a hard time distinguishing between the actual presence of the Spirit and those wonderful feelings they get at times when something connects with them emotionally. I’ve felt strong emotions about all sorts of things, including religious things, and the effect is not the same as the presence of the Spirit, which, at least in my life, is extremely rare. So this study may not have been measuring anything related to the Holy Ghost. It may have been measuring only a person’s emotional response to something they hold dear.

  8. A few things we need be careful about. If there really is a spirit as an objective physical and then phenomenological event it makes sense that it’d trigger particular parts of the body. In the same way seeing a ghost and seeing a normal person both are “seeing” and presumably trigger parts of the brain dealing with vision. To have an experience with an emotional component unsurprisingly triggers an emotional part of the brain.

    Second, one should always be careful about fMRI studies that have been so popular the last decade (primarily because they’re cheap and easy to do and often guarantee a paper and press response) By and large what they imply about the brain isn’t entirely clear. More significantly fMRI studies often involve small samples (15-20 people is typical) and rarely are studies reproduced (a key aspect of good science). Scientific American had a good discussion of this a few years back. In particular there’s a “correlation not causation” problem due to the way the experiments are conducted.

    In any case certain emotional trappings of an experience aren’t the same as the experience itself. One should also note Joseph Smith’s careful distinction between what we’d call an emotional state and information conveyed by the spirit. (Due to what he considered counterfeits by say Pentacostal practices)

  9. At the same time, I would caution completely bifurcating spiritual experiences from emotion. In my experience, feeling the Spirit can and often does affect my emotions.

  10. (My comment #14 was meant to fall right after comments 9-11. Clark captured my thoughts well in comment 12.)

  11. Franklin, I do worry that we don’t teach enough to beware of the counterfeits of the spirit. You note confusing spiritual manifestation with emotional feelings. But I think even ignoring the ‘feel’ of an experience we can confuse our expectations, fears, or other such matters in terms of the content of an experience.

    While the Church does at times discuss the dangers in interpreting spiritual experiences, by and large it’s main focus is in just convincing people to try and have them and follow them. This tends to mean the downsides of false positives get overlooked. Yet these can affect people. The cliche is the joke about a BYU student thinking they’ve had a revelation to marry someone. But the problems pop up in all sorts of ways. I suspect everyone has been misled at some time or an other. Yet I also suspect most members have had experiences where they followed through and the consequences strongly suggest a real spiritual communication.

    Exactly how to balance care and skepticism with faith so one acts isn’t clear. I rather suspect that were the Church to push the warning part that the very people who need to try and listen to the spirit would be less inclined. Likewise those already living by the spirit probably have already figured things out themselves.

  12. “One should also note Joseph Smith’s careful distinction between what we’d call an emotional state and information conveyed by the spirit.”

    Read it more carefully. Joseph Smith’s point is that there many who claim to feel the spirit but are actually being deceived by Satan. Strongly implicit in his argument is the idea that claimed knowledge is coming from the real Holy Spirit if it conforms to what is said in the scriptures and to what Joseph Smith says is true. It can be derived from Joseph Smith’s words here that one should be extremely careful in seeking knowledge through the spirit. The question is begged (both from Joseph Smith’s words and from the study mentioned in the OP and the comments), what is the point of seeking the guidance of the real Holy Spirit (provided it actually exists) if one can supposedly be so easily deceived by the devil, as Joseph Smith was claiming, who is somehow able to mimic these feelings, and if the feeling that is generated is nothing more than something caused by our own biology and not an actual external force? What exactly are the criteria to determine that a particular feeling was actually caused by the Holy Ghost and couldn’t have been caused by the devil or one’s own brain? If anything, it would seem that the study is making it more hard for believers to make that distinction. How are believers to be so sure that particular beliefs are actually true as evidenced by the spirit and that they are not being deceived? Pray and seek more spiritual feelings? See the problem here?

  13. “I rather suspect that were the Church to push the warning part that the very people who need to try and listen to the spirit would be less inclined.”

    What about people who have left the LDS church because they think that the spirit told them to do so? There are many like that. I.e., Christopher Nemelka.

    “Likewise those already living by the spirit probably have already figured things out themselves.”

    In other words, being a loyal LDS person = living by the spirit. So how do we know that someone is living by the spirit? Because they are a faithful LDS person. What exactly are the independent criteria that one would use to determine whether or not someone is living by the spirit?

  14. “While the Church does at times discuss the dangers in interpreting spiritual experiences, by and large it’s main focus is in just convincing people to try and have them and follow them”

    Unless claimed spiritual experiences lead them to convert to a non-LDS religion, behave in ways that are against the leaders’ counsel, and challenge widely accepted LDS doctrinal precepts. The LDS church leaders would pretty much prefer that people just fall in line with what they say more or less without question.

  15. Mark S, I’m not sure what I said is at odds with what you said. The point is that people are taking certain trappings which are counterfeits and treating them as real. That’s regardless of how it is done (whether by “supernatural” means or more psychological). I’m also not sure I’d agree with what you see as implicit, although clearly he does get at ways to confirm our experiences. That is there is a certain element of skepticism he suggests for our religious experiences. “Try the spirits” is pretty straightforward even if in practice it can be trickier.

    The key part though is that he thinks counterfeits of the spirit are common among the church. That’s an important point. His ultimate argument is that it’s only by the gift of discernment one can ultimately resolve the issues. Again, an important if troubling point. He’s pretty forthright about this circularity problem.

    “…if it requires the Spirit of God to know the things of God; and the spirit of the devil can only be unmasked through that medium, then it follows as a natural consequence that unless some person or persons have a communication, or revelation from God, unfolding to them the operation of the spirit, they must eternally remain ignorant of these principles.”

    One of his solutions is a known prophet acting as a trump. (That doesn’t resolve everything obviously but at least gives a burden of proof for those raising conflicts)

    The questions you later raise really are the same problems Joseph Smith addresses. There’s an inescapable circularity although when we put our purported revelations in tension with other accepted sources (prophets, scriptures, etc.) then that gets a little easier.

    Certainly Joseph is assuming his revelations are right and others wrong. Just as we do today. So I don’t think the points you raise are particularly new. Indeed Joseph raises many of them. I don’t think the epistemological questions are unresolvable. But they aren’t resolvable in a simple fashion. Instead we’re lead towards a hermeneutic circle.

  16. Clark, you wrote:

    “One should also note Joseph Smith’s careful distinction between what we’d call an emotional state and information conveyed by the spirit.”

    Joseph Smith makes no mention of what we would call an “emotional state.” He clearly says that false spirits and the devil are behind other religious claims and claims by his followers that he thinks don’t square with things he has claimed to be revelation or with the teachings in the Bible. He also doesn’t outline what information is conveyed by the spirit (aka Holy Ghost). All he says is that you can’t know anything about god unless it be through the real Holy Ghost. JS gives no details in this talk about what is to be known through the spirit or about how one should distinguish whether some perceived revelation is from the Holy Ghost or a false spirit. It is basically a long rant about how people saying and doing things that he doesn’t think are doctrinal are inspired by false spirits. He doesn’t address any of the questions I posed.

    “So I don’t think the points you raise are particularly new. Indeed Joseph raises many of them.”

    Maybe they’re not new, but I most certainly can’t any straight answers to them from believers. Joseph Smith may pose some questions that are similar to the ones that I posed, but gives no substantive answers. Gift of discernment? He’s not really saying anything substantive or informative there, now is he. He only begs the question of what having the “discerning of spirits” is and how one acquires it. The talk amounts to: the other guys are wrong because they are misled by false spirits and I am right because I say so in an authoritative sounding voice and because I can quote some passages of the Bible that seem to confirm what I say.

  17. I’ve had a few communications from God that at first seemed at odds with “the church,” but every time God makes sure to broadcast loud and clear that it was from him, that there can be no doubt. i.e. Church or district meeting being entirely focused on the topic in question, opening scriptures at random and it landing on the topic, parents or someone close advising out of nowhere upon the topic, etc. Usually all at once, and it continues until I’m like “okay okay, I guess that actually was from God.”

    I’ve also had a few false and misleading revelations. They have a very different flavor, and never a feeling of peace, or usually even a feeling that it was from God. I decided that the communications were from God based off of my (faulty) reasoning, and not because the communications actually felt like they were (or even could be) coming from God.

    The “but how do you know if it was REEELY from God” argument is nothing new. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to the question; every man must gain knowledge of it by experience for himself. Study and by faith.

    Though, if someone comes along with a false revelation, there’s certainly plenty enough signs that THOSE can be known by.

  18. Mark it’s true I’m including in counterfeits more than Joseph explicitly comments on. i.e. I don’t think most charismatic performances at say a Pentacostal church are supernatural. I’m not sure that changes the nature of Joseph’s comments much, if at all.

    Like you are apparently I’m rather dubious of practices even many Mormons do like the throw open a scripture and think it’s from God. That’s not to say a certain random element can’t be affected by the spirit. I remember on my mission doing a fast and prayer to find someone to teach. It was in an area where they actually had good teaching records kept. It was a collection of 3×5 cards with each ‘successful’ contact written with address. We prayed that we’d find someone to teach, opened it up, selected a card we felt was right (mostly at random, not by reading through them) and went to that address and did a cold call. We ended up having a successful teaching experience and I believe the person got baptized. Not clear evidence obviously for a variety of reasons (the person had already had some discussions, so clearly had an element of interest, the teaching environment could have been aided rather than the address selection, etc.) Still I wouldn’t totally discount ‘randomness’ as a way to help with answers. After all the scriptures give many examples of drawing lots as a way of discerning divine messages.

    To your final point, I don’t think gift of discernment is a dodge. Rather he suggests there are counterfeits and it’s only by figuring out something trustworthy that one can judge. Admittedly he doesn’t go into how you do that, but I do think that’s addressed elsewhere.

    My posts on epistemology is going to address that. I was hoping to post those all last month. Unfortunately work got rather pressing after I posted the first one. I’ve not had time to post much since. I’ll try and do that this week.

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