Study: Brain Chemicals Key to Spiritual Experience

Lower serotonin levels make people more open to religious practices, experiences.

Reprinted from the March 2004 issue of Science and Theology News with permission.

Whether you prefer whirling with the dervishes, participating in liturgical services or meditating with Buddhists may depend on the level of serotonin in your brain, recent research indicates.

Participation in and receptivity to certain religious and spiritual practices may be linked to the density of one of 15 serotonin receptors in the brain, said Dr. Lars Farde, professor of psychiatry at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-author of, "The Serotonin System and Spiritual Experiences," published in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychology.

According to Farde, the receptor neurologists call 5-HT1A "is one of the most important because it serves as a marker for the entire serotonin system." He said the connection furthers the belief that brain function may impact openness to spiritual experiences.

Using a brain imaging technique called positron emission tomography, or PET, Farde and his team have been studying neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin for a number of years. Their past research was the first to demonstrate the correlation between higher brain function and personality.

Recently, the researchers became interested in the serotonin system because of its relationship to depression and anxiety, said Farde. In attempting to confirm the correlation between serotonin levels and anxiety, he said they were surprised to discover a connection between the density of the receptors and spiritual acceptance.

Using the "Temperament and Character Inventory," 15 mentally and physically healthy men ages 20 - 45 self-assessed a number of personality traits, including self-transcendence, which denotes religious behavior and attitudes. The scale includes yes-or-no questions like, "I have had supernatural experiences" and, "I believe in a common, unifying force."

"We looked at how they view the existence of a spiritual realm," said Farde. "You can take the extremes. The person who scores very low might be a technician who says they believe the things they see, the things they can measure, whereas they don't believe anything beyond that. The other extreme might be the new-age type, or the person who believes that nature has a soul and views the spiritual reality as more important than the reality seen by our eyes."

The participants also underwent PET scans to determine their serotonin levels. Analyzing the date from the two tests, the researchers discovered a strong linear correlation: the higher the scores for spiritual acceptance, the lower the density of the serotonin receptors.

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Frederica Saylor
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