Religion Triggers Same Brain Reward Circulatory As Gambling

Religion and gambling are two things you would rarely, if ever, associate with each other. In fact, many religions condemn the act of gambling and it is seen by many religious followers as a sin.

So, it is interesting to see that new research led by neuroradiologist Jeffrey S Anderson shows that gambling has a similar impact on the circulatory system of the brain as love, music, and, yes, religion.

A representation of the brain circulatory system
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Gambling And God

In the cynical world in which we live, it can be said that religion itself can be viewed as a form of gambling. Without solid proof of a higher being in existence every follower of their own religion is placing a bet in the form of faith that this great power is real. Nobody can truly say they know.

Whatever we believe, we simply have to have faith that it is the way things are. Until we pass on, we are never likely to know the truth, and by then it’ll be too late.

However, most religions view gambling with a negative stance. The Bible states that “And He said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses’” (Luke 12:15).

A page from inside of the Quran, the religious text of Islam
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Many Christian followers believe that the main reason that people gamble is to covet more money. In Islam, gambling is also frowned upon too.

The Quran states “O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, dedication of stones, and divination by arrows, are an abomination of Satan’s handwork. Eschew such abomination, that you may prosper” (Quran 5:90).

The Study

A recent study called ‘Reward, salience, and attentional Networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons’ by Jeffrey S Anderson et al looked into how religion can emotionally affect individuals.

The researchers involved in the study used fMRI scans to analyse the brains of 19 devout Mormons as they took part in an act called ‘Feeling the Spirit’ through the reading of prayers, reading of religious-themed quotes, and audiovisual stimuli produced by the Mormon church.

An MRI scanner used in radiology to assess the anatomy
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The scans showed that the activity in the nucleus accumbens was proof that this experience triggered a similar reaction in the brain as love, music, and gambling. It is the nucleus accumbens where critical activity occurs in the brain during the process of pleasure and reward.

Essentially, this means that people gain a feeling of reward from religion. It can be argued that this would be very much in the same manner as being around someone you love, listening to a song you enjoy, or winning a hand of blackjack.

Why Mormons?

Of course, this study only involved devout Mormons. It could be argued that individuals of other religions might not display similar results.

Anderson confirmed that devout Mormons were chosen for the “centrality in their theology and practice of charismatic spiritual feelings”.

A photo of two devout mormons
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The frequency that devout Mormons were believed to become so emotionally affected by religious activities such as prayer, reading scriptures, and experiencing audiovisual stimuli made them ideal candidates for the experiment.

There is still a big question over whether the brain activity, particularly in the nucleus accumbens, would be similar for individuals of other religions. Would a Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, or Jewish candidate display identical results? It is hard to tell.

Is The Trigger The Religion Or The Individual?

Another big question hanging over the study is whether the results of the brain activity can be attributed to the influence of religion or whether it could be due to the individuals themselves?

Devout Mormons are going to share the same personality traits due to the intense level of commitment that the religion requires. Individuals must hold characteristics that make them prone to feeling certain ways about religion.

Someone participating in real money gambling
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However, there is clearly something about the practice of religion that influences individuals to act the way they do.

What Do the Results Tell Us?

Well, it could be argued that the results don’t tell us anything. They simply show that a select group of devout Mormons get as emotional about their own religion as they would about the latest hit song from Taylor Swift. On the flip side, it could offer a more telling interpretation.

If the activity is so similar to that found in the participation of reward and pleasure, then is religion a more selfish commitment than we initially though? Do people become devout to their religion because they feel they can gain more from it?

All controversy aside, the bottom line of this study is that it shows religion has the ability to make people feel as euphoric inside as love, music, and gambling can.

If we have just discovered that religion can impact our emotions as positively as that then maybe it’s about time everybody picked a faith and started to experience the highs that religion can supposedly offer. Or you could just stick to slamming $10 down on black and hoping that the ball lands in the right section of the wheel…

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