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What does religion, sex, drugs and rock n roll have in common?

The brains of people who feel God's spirit are stimulated in a similar way to the more earthly desires of enjoying drugs, music, gambling and sex, scientists have revealed.

Researchers used MRI scans to look into the brains of Mormons experiencing religious ecstasy.

Scientists from the University of Utah in the U.S. enlisted 19 church-going teenagers to take part in an hour long "exam" with four parts for the study.

The scientists recorded their reactions and studied the parts of the brain stimulated.

This included six minutes of rest, six minutes of a video detailing their church's membership statistics, eight minutes of quotations by Mormon and world religious leaders, eight minutes of reading familiar passages from the Book of Mormon, 12 minutes of church-produced video of family and Biblical scenes and another eight minutes of quotations.

Bioengineer Dr Michael Ferguson, who led the study, said: "When our study participants were instructed to think about a saviour, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded."

A spiritual feeling of closeness to God in oneself is a critically important part of Mormons' lives and they make decisions based on these feelings.

They see them as a confirmation of doctrinal principles and view them as a primary means of communication with the divine.

The seven women and 12 men, all former missionaries, were shown videos related to their religion - including a clip detailing their church's membership statistics - and were told to press a button when they 'felt the Spirit'.

When they pushed the button, their brain responses were recorded using MRI scans and their heart and breathing rates was also recorded.

The scans revealed that when the teenagers felt connected to God, an area of their brain called the nucleus accumbens was activated.

The nucleus accumbens is known as the brain's "reward centre" and it is also activated when people think about love, sex, drugs and gambling.

Peak activity in the nucleus accumbens occurred about one to three seconds before participants pushed the button.

The young Mormons also started breathing more heavily and their hearts started beating faster as they pressed the button.

The team also discovered that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, which is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgement and moral reasoning.

Feeling 'the spirit' also activated brain regions associated with focused attention.

Neuroradiologist Dr Jeff Anderson, who also led the study, said: "We're just beginning to understand how the brain participates in experiences that believers interpret as spiritual, divine or transcendent.

"In the last few years, brain imaging technologies have matured in ways that are letting us approach questions that have been around for millennia."

The findings, part of the Religious Brain Project which aims to understand how the brain operates in people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs, were published on November 29 in the journal Social Neuroscience.

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