Spiritual Experiences Activate Brain Reward Systems

| Spiritual Experiences Hold Positive Implications
for Addiction Recovery

Arrowhead Lodge Recovery, Rehab for Men Meditation| Step 2 and Step 11 of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous state that prayer and direct spiritual experience are important factors in addiction recovery.

Many recovering from addiction find ‘the spirituality’ steps to be elusive and difficult to experience.

Recent research indicates that prayer, mindfulness, meditation and direct spiritual experience are well worth the effort in addiction recovery.

What We Know About Brain’s Reward Areas and Spiritual Experience

Spiritual Practices and Meditation:

  • Release ‘feel good’ substances dopamine, serotonin, melatonin.
  • Decrease noradrenaline (secreted by adrenal glands) and cortisol (primary stress hormone).
  • Have a positive impact on mental and physical health.
  • Can aid in addiction recovery.
  • Can help prevent relapses in recovering addicts.
  • Can assist psychotherapeutic treatment.
  • Increase neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural connections at any stage of life.
  • Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.
  • Can actually change brain structure; see Harvard MRI Study Evidence of Meditation’s Cognitive Benefits.
  • 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 

spiritual-experience-brain-scan-credit-telegraph-co-ukDr. 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.

Their study, Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons, was recently published.

“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.”

Our Brains Are Wired for Belief

Arrowhead Lodge Recovery - Impaired C-level Executives Treatment ProgramThe Pew Research Center, in a 2008 article, How Our Brains are Wired for Belief, states: “Recent advances in neuroscience and brain-imaging technology have offered researchers a look into the physiology of religious experiences. In observing brain scans of experienced meditation practitioners, Buddhist monks as they meditateCarmelite nuns as they pray, and Pentecostals as they speak in tongues, Dr. Andrew B. Newberg (radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania) found that measurable brain activity matches up with the religious experiences described by worshippers.”

Neurochemistry of Spirituality

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

arrowhead-lodge-recovery-spirituality-in-addiction-recoveryIn 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’

Mesolimbic 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

Photo: Bryce Johnson, Science For Monks

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

The most comprehensive scientific study of meditation, the Shamatha Project led by scientists at UC Davis, indicates meditation leads to improved perception and may even have some effect on cellular aging. Studies are continuing.

Meditation and Mindfulness for Stress Reduction

Arrowhead-Lodge-Recovery-Mens-Rehab-Recovery-Meditation-1Thirty 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.

“In the last 25 years there’s been a tidal shift in the field, and now there are 300 scientific papers on mindfulness,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

“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

University of Wisconsin-Madison Buddha's Brain study
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers ready a Buddhist monk for an fMRI scan during their Buddha’s Brain project. Image from wisconline.com

Research suggests that individuals — from children who may engage in bullying to people prone to recurring depression — and society in general could benefit from such meditative practices, says study director Dr. Richard Davidson. He is a professor of psychiatry and psychology at UW Madison and an expert on imaging the effects of meditation. See more on the study at http://news.wisc.edu/study-shows-compassion-meditation-changes-the-brain.

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.

Brain Scans Show Meditation Changes Minds, Increases Attention

University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson
University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson

Regarding a study published in March 2008, Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise, Dr. Richard Davidson said: “What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before,” said Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university’s new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior.

“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.”

Therapeutic Effects of Meditation and Prayer

Arrowhead-Lodge-RecoveryMens-Rehab-Discovering-Authentic-Self31204936In an abstract from his paper The Neuroscientific Study of Spiritual Practices, Dr. Andrew B. Newberg states:

“There are a growing number of studies which have explored the therapeutic effects of meditation, stress management, prayer, and other related interventions for various psychological and physical disorders including anxiety, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer (Levin and Vanderpool, 1989; Leserman et al., 1989; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992; Levin, 1994; Miller et al., 1995; Massion et al., 1995; Schneider et al., 1995; Zamarra et al., 1996). Performing high quality studies is essential to demonstrating the relationship between spirituality and health. Such studies also provide insight into the longer term effects of spiritual practices and experiences.”

Neuroplasticity: Meditation May Facilitate More Rapid Learning

Arrowhead-Lodge-Recovery-Mens-Addiction-Recovery-Mindfulness-MeditationNeuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

According to Dr. Richard Davidson in the study Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation, neuroplasticity is a term that is used to describe the brain changes that occur in response to experience. 

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

Arrowhead-Lodge-Recovery-Mens-Addiction-Recovery-Mindfulness2Abstinence 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

Arrowhead Lodge Recovery - Good Sleep Reset Circadian RhythmsEven 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.

Addiction Rehab Program: Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual

Arrowhead-Lodge-Recovery,Men's Rehab Group Therapy, Prescott AZArrowhead 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

Arrowhead Lodge Recovery, Men's Rehab, Prescott AZArrowhead Lodge Recovery is a small, private addiction, co-occurring disorder and trauma informed treatment program for men 30 and older; located in the beautiful mountains of Prescott, Arizona. We have chosen to keep our facility small and staff to client ratio large.

We use a multi-disciplinary addiction treatment approach to treat the whole person, implemented by licensed professionals.

Mindfulness training, healthy exercise, nutritional counseling and education, cognitive behavioral therapy and psychoeducation are a part of our treatment program.

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 Lodge Team 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.


Harvard MRI Study Evidence of Meditation’s Cognitive Benefits
How Addiction Hijacks the Brain – Mindfulness Restores Sobriety
Mindfulness in Addiction Treatment
New Study Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Pain
Mindfulness Meditation and The 10th Step


Photo Credit: Copyright flynt / 123RF Stock Photo

Photo Credit: Mesolimbic Pathway Illustration by User:Slashme; Patrick J. Lynch; User:Fvasconcellos – self-made; re-use File:Brain bulbar region.svg, GFDL, Link