Is it possible to see what’s happening in the brains of people who are engaged in spiritual practices? Would their brains give clues to how human beings experience spiritual gatherings? A study followed participants at a week-long spiritual retreat and discovered that spiritual retreats changed the neurotransmitters of those involved in social-led, spiritual events.
Spiritual retreats are focused on meditation, spirituality/religion, introspection, and reflection, usually done for a weekend or longer. These retreats give people a chance to unplug from modern life and focus on their spirituality and usually share the same features of providing activities, quiet spaces, and room and board for the duration of the retreat.
The Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University became interested in following a group of 14 people as they attended a meditative, spiritual retreat in 2017. They designed a study which scanned the brains of the retreat participants (aged 24-76 years old) both before and after the retreat. The retreat was modeled after spiritual practices outlined by the founder of the Jesuits, and the participants attended religious services daily, followed by silent prayer and reflection, which was then followed by meeting with spiritual directors for individualized guidance.
The participants completed a survey after they returned from the retreat, and they reported significant improvements in their fatigue and tension levels, as well as overall physical health. The participants also reported more feelings of having had a spiritual experience (self-transcendence) while they were at the retreat. Were these subjective assessments based on belief and faith, or was there any evidence that they had experienced something spiritual?
Using a technology known as SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), the scans revealed a 5-8% decrease in the dopamine transporter binding and a 6.5% decrease in serotonin transporter binding. Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine is associated with emotion, cognition, and movement; and serotonin plays a major role in mood and emotional regulation.
A transporter for these neurotransmitters is a protein between the neurons which end the message for dopamine to be released, allowing the transporter to re-uptake the dopamine after the message has been sent to the other neurons. The decrease in transporter binding means the signal to end the release isn't completed and more of the substance keeps being released. In the case of dopamine and serotonin, this lack of termination of the release makes more neurotransmitters available to the brain, which is a phenomenon believed to be associated with feelings of well-being and, often, of spirituality.
The feelings of self-transcendence that the participants reported correlated to the changes seen in the dopamine binding. The decreased dopamine transporter binding was noted in the basal ganglia of the brain, while the serotonin transporter binding was seen in the midbrain.
The evidence that there were actual changes to the participants' neurochemistry after experiencing a spiritual retreat is compelling. It warrants further studies to look more closely at the changes in neurochemistry that can be seen with positive thinking, reflection, and the emotional and spiritual support offered by the regular practice of spirituality or religion. It would be interesting to see when these changes occur—are they during periods of self-reflection, during shared rituals, or when a group of people unite to discuss their own experiences?
For now, these questions will largely remain unanswered. Due to the difficulty of measuring organic reactions during private experiences such as these, there may always be a mystery surrounding the physiological and psychological dynamics of faith and belief. Though not paired often, faith and science come together in studies such as these in an attempt of mutual understanding; perhaps leaving us with more questions than answers, which we will have to mull over in our own self-reflections.
Newberg, Andrew B., et al. “Effect of a One-Week Spiritual Retreat on Dopamine and Serotonin Transporter Binding: a Preliminary Study.” Religion, Brain & Behavior, vol. 8, no. 3, 2018, doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2016.1267035.