And on an everyday level – we can all benefit from being more calm, patient and happy.
Spiritual Experience Triggers Same Brain Reward Areas as Sex and Gambling
Dr. Jeffrey Anderson and Dr. Julie Korenberg, neuroscientists at the University of Utah, are among a growing number of scientists aiming their field’s most sophisticated machinery at religious cognition.
“We’re just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent,” said study senior author Dr. Jeffrey Anderson.
In addition to activating the brain’s reward circuits, the researchers found that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex. This is a complex brain region that is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgment and moral reasoning.
The study found that “feeling the spirit” also boosted activity in regions of the brain associated with focused attention.
“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.”
In a 2008 study, Neurobiology of Spirituality, neuroimaging studies have been successfully utilized to evaluate specific spiritual and meditative practices. Meditation has been associated with a decrease in the levels of noradrenaline; a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands during ‘fight or flight’ reactions.
Increased dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens part of the brain during meditation by experienced meditators. Increases in dopamine also occur in response to sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Significant Increases in Dopamine Generated During Meditation
Research has proven that significant increases in dopamine are generated during meditation. The dopaminergic system, via the basal ganglia, is involved in cortical subcortical interactions and a PET study showed significant increase of dopamine during meditation (Kjaer, et al., 2002). This corresponds to a 65% increase in endogenous dopamine release.
Serotonin and Melatonin Increased, Cortisol Levels Decreased During Meditation
In the 2008 study Neurobiology of Spirituality, serotonin levels were found to increase during meditation. Meditation was also associated with a sharp increase of plasma melatonin (Tooley, et al., 2000). The increased melatonin may result in the calmness and decreased awareness of pain seen during meditation.
Decreased CRH and cortisol levels during meditation. The parasympathetic activation also results in decreased baroreceptor stimulation and secondarily releases its inhibition of the supraoptic nucleus, leading to the release of arginine vasopressin (AVP) and returns the blood pressure to normal. There is a dramatic AVP increase during meditation, which plays a role in decreasing self-perceived fatigue, increases arousal and helps consolidate new memories and learning. Increase in glutamate also stimulates the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus and causes the release of β-endorphin (BE). This is probably responsible for effects such as decreased pain and joyous and euphoric sensations during meditation along with other chemical mediators (Newberg and Iversen, 2003).
Dopamine and the ‘Reward Pathway’
When most people talk about dopamine – particularly when they talk about motivation, addiction, attention, or lust – they are talking about the dopamine pathway known as the mesolimbic pathway. This starts with cells in the ventral tegmental area. These cells are buried deep in the middle of the brain and send their projections out to places like the nucleus accumbens and the cortex.
Spiritual Practices and Depression
Spiritual practices can have considerable antidepressant effects due to the associated increase in serotonin and dopamine. Additional factors like increased levels of melatonin and AVP contribute to the antidepressant effects. Via multiple neurochemical changes, spiritual practices can counteract depression (Newberg and Iversen, 2003).
Brain Scans of Buddhist Monks Produce Similar Results
Stanford neuroeconomist Dr. Brian Knutson is an expert in the pleasure center of the brain. He can hook you up to a brain scanner, take you on a simulated shopping spree and tell by looking at your nucleus accumbens – an area deep inside your brain associated with fight, flight, eating and fornicating – how you process risk and reward, whether you’re a spendthrift or a tightwad.
Knutson is interested in the nucleus accumbens, which receives a dopamine hit when a person anticipates something pleasant, like winning at blackjack.
Now he wants to know if the same area of the brain can light up for altruistic reasons. Can extending compassion to another person look the same in the brain as anticipating something good for oneself? The “monk study” at Stanford is part of an emerging field of meditation science that has taken off in the last decade with advancements in brain image technology, and popular interest.
Meditation and Spiritual Experience on Effects of Aging
Thirty years ago, medical Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn used meditation as the basis for his revolutionary “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.” He put people with chronic pain and depression through a six-week meditation practice in the basement of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and became one of the first practitioners to record meditation-related health improvements in patients with intractable pain.
“Essentially when you spend a lot of time meditating, the brain shows a pattern of feeling safe in the world and more comfortable in approaching people and situations, and less vigilant and afraid, which is more associated with the right hemisphere,” she said.
Meditative Practice Can Change How the Brain Works
Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness.
Over the past few years, researchers at the University of Wisconsin working with Tibetan monks have been able to translate those mental experiences into the scientific language of high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony, or coordination. And they have pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead, as the place where brain activity associated with meditation is especially intense.
“Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance. We all know that if an individual works out on a regular basis, that can change cardiovascular health,” he says. “In the same way, these data suggest that certain basic mechanisms of the mind, like attention, can also be trained and improved through systematic practice.”
One of the interesting implications of the research on meditation and brain function is that meditation might help to reduce “neural noise” and so enhance signal-to-noise ratios in certain types of tasks. In contexts where brain-computer interfaces are being developed that are based upon electrical recordings of brain function, training in meditation may facilitate more rapid learning.
Neuroplasticity and Addiction Recovery
Abstinence from addictive substances or activities can lead to a reversal of many physical changes that occurred during addiction. We used to think that the brain, once damaged, could not repair itself. Breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown that this is not true. Individual neurons might be damaged beyond repair – but the brain attempts to heal itself when damaged by making new connections or new neural pathways as work-arounds for the damage. This is called neuroplasticity, neuro (brain/nerve/neuron) and plasticity (moldability).
With drug and alcohol use, the number of dopamine receptors in the brain decrease as usage continues. In addition, the number of dopamine transporters are increased; more quickly supplying dopamine to the existing receptors. These changes make the brain less responsive to the drug over time, creating an addictive cycle.
This mechanism is important to understand. The brain is responding to an unnaturally high amount of dopamine during drug use by closing off existing dopamine receptors. The result for the drug user is that over time it becomes more and more difficult to get enough dopamine – and to feel pleasure. This leads to more use of the drug and deeper addiction.
In addiction, the brain becomes trained to do a particular addictive behavior to the exclusion of all else. In addiction treatment, the brain can be retrained. Individuals can create new brain pathways that support recovery. Combination therapies (medications plus psychotherapy) help the recovery process by managing the physiological effects of addiction and withdrawal. Cognitive-behavioral treatments work to mend and repair the psychological impact of addiction.
Mindfulness training is also an important part of addiction recovery. Mindfulness not only decreases anxiety and increases positive thoughts and personal interactions. Mindfulness practice assists in re-training the brain for sobriety and helps prevent relapse.
Addiction Recovery – Spiritual Experience is Healing
Even more powerful than mindfulness alone: authentic personal spiritual experience during meditation or prayer. Authentic personal spiritual experiences create a cascade of dopamine, serotonin, melatonin – the ‘feel good’ hormones. This cascade is identical to the ‘high’ initiated by drug use.
As personal meditation, mindfulness and/or prayer become more effective – the ‘spiritual high’ produced becomes stronger. This is one very helpful behavior habit addicts can use to find a way out of the addictive loop.
Mindfulness training in addiction recovery, when used in conjunction with psychotherapy and other holistic interventions, assists in healing addicted brains.
Arrowhead Lodge Recovery is a gender-specific addiction treatment center for men over 30; located in Prescott, AZ.
We treat addiction in the whole person: cognitive, physical and spiritual. We assist our clients in discovering their personal connection with spiritual experience. Each individual has unique spiritual experiences; we assist clients in discovering and strengthening inner spiritual experience. We do not teach or promote any particular spiritual path.
We use mindfulness and meditation as tools to assist in addiction recovery. Mindfulness and meditation are also used at Arrowhead Lodge Recovery to help clients deal effectively with chronic pain.
As needed, we focus on treating chronic pain in our recovery program. We treat both addiction and chronic pain symptoms. Our program requires a residential stay that may be covered by medical insurance plans. We also work with workers compensation companies for those whose original injury was work related.
Addiction Treatment and Recovery – Arrowhead Lodge Recovery
Each client receives individual therapy and counseling; as well as group therapy and counseling.
Arrowhead Lodge Recovery employs an experienced and licensed team consisting of a physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, registered nurse, licensed therapists, and nutritionist.
The experienced and accredited Arrowhead LodgeTeam allows us to help men for whom previous treatment attempts may have failed. Thorough medical, psycho-social, addiction and trauma assessments inform medical interventions, medication management needs; and the team’s individual approach to treating addiction and trauma in each client.
Arrowhead Lodge Recovery also believes strongly in encouraging the power of spirituality in the healing process. We help our clients discover a personal path to living a more authentic life.
Questions? Arrowhead Lodge Recovery Has Answers
Call our admissions counselor now at 1-888-654-2800 for a confidential assessment to see if our addiction recovery program can help you return to a meaningful and fulfilling life.