How to measure feeling the spirit

Scientists are studying what happens in the brain when someone has a religious experience

I am sad to say that I have not been lucky enough yet to “feel the spirit” or any sort of physical reaction connected to a belief in a higher power. The closest I have ever gotten is the fully-satiated satisfaction of over-eating at Passover. (“Pass me the gefilte fish, please”.) Honestly, I’ve been trying to understand people who say they feel spirituality, that lightness of being, that burning sensation, that sense of certainty or extra-worldliness. But I’m a science-person. There couldn’t possibly be a connection between religion and science. Right? Well, no less than Albert Einstein saw it, saying, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Seems he could think about more than one mass. 

I’m slowly turning into a believer that science can validate at least one aspect of faithfulness. Why? Because of a group of Mormons who are helping scientists bridge the divide. Among them is Auriel Peterson, a 27-year-old devout Mormon nursing student. She says she feels a burning sensation in her chest and a calmness and clarity when she’s awash with spirituality. Auriel is one of 20 devout Mormons who participated at a brain study at the University of Utah’s “Religious Brain Project.” 

Crystal Dilworth sitting down with Dr. Julie Korenberg and Dr. Jeffrey Anderson

Researchers Dr. Julie Korenberg and Dr. Jeffrey Anderson are conducting this first part of what they hope will be a wider ranging project. Twenty Mormon test subjects slid (one at a time!) into an MRI. For more than an hour they were bombarded with spiritual sayings and videos. The idea was to trigger a “spiritual” experience. All the participants said they had one or more and they all reportedly left crying, overcome with emotion. All the while the brain scans followed the action. By data crunching the scans and self-reported feeling of spirituality, along with blood work (taken right before and after to track hormones connected to positive feelings) these researchers believe that they’ve pinpointed the areas in the brain that are connected to the religious feelings of euphoria. Their goal, as stated to us, is modest. They wanted to prove that the experience of faithful bliss could be tracked. 

Crystal Dilworth getting her brain scanned at The University of Utah

Because their research is still being peer reviewed, we weren’t privy to the conclusions of the study. But Auriel’s brain was used as good example of the process and general results. What we saw in Auriel’s MRI scans were flashes of brightness in areas of the brain indicating a surge of blood to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the insula. Where? Yeah, I didn’t know what those were either. Those are part of the ‘salience network,’ the circuitry in the brain that flips on when something is worth getting excited about and needs closer attention. My salience network probably goes gaga over the smell of melted cheese and anything sung by Adele. That’s a joke. But, it’s actually something the researchers are taking seriously.

Right now the study is focusing on tracking the biological reactions to religious stimuli. But Dr. Anderson told me it is totally plausible that if they put me into the MRI while listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, my dorsal anterior cingulate cortex might light up like the Times Square building on New Years Eve. Dr. Anderson agrees that it could be exactly the same neurological reaction that Auriel had.

How Auriel's brain responded to religious imagery and quotations

The inference that rocked my world about the early findings was when the researchers suggested that the brain’s reaction to religious stimuli in Mother Teresa might very well be the same as a terrorist. What? Can that surge of good feeling based on religious doctrine impact the brain the same way in both saint and sinner? Scientists are beginning to think so. What about other euphoric experiences? Could the feeling of ecstasy in an Olympic gold medalist be the same as an addict getting a drug fix? All I can say is this was mind blowing. Was it my insula pounding?

There are other questions yet to be answered about the future of this study. Should there be a control group of atheists? Can they replicate the reaction in followers of other religions? Could the MRI results truly track the areas of the brain that are responding at that very nano-nanosecond of bliss?

For now, I guess I will stick to knowing for sure that the happiness I feel when downing my Mom’s Passover matzoh brei smothered in applesauce can be measured, if not in my brain, for sure in my stomach. Such a joy. And pass the sour cream too. 

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