In a world where we are constantly bombarded by texts and disturbing news alerts, the thought of unplugging for a week-long meditative or spiritual retreat can be enticing. Taking into account the proven health benefits of meditations, researchers are examining how spiritual retreats affect the brain — and it may be key in explaining the science behind that relaxed state of zen and connectivity. Religious retreats are often credited with producing significant spiritual and personal transformation that participants may view as "life-changing" but the science behind this is still hazy. A recent study published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior is believed to be the first to offer insight in to the neurophysiological effects of such a seven-day religious retreat and how the participant's changing dopamine and serotonin levels might be key to priming them for a transcendent experience.
Prior to entering a seven-day retreat structured around spiritual exercises developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, 14 Christian participants, aged 24 to 76, were evaluated by researchers from The Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University using a number of psychological and spiritual questionnaires as well as a brain scan. The scans and questionnaires were repeated within a week following the completion of the week-long retreat.
The goal of the retreat, held at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, was to "create an entirely new understanding of an individual’s spiritual life and how this new understanding of spirituality can be incorporated into the person’s everyday life as well as produce a substantial change and/or deepening of the person’s spiritual and religious beliefs." Participants spent most of the week in silent meditation, personal reflection and prayer. Each day they attended a morning mass, as well as meeting with a spiritual director each day for guidance.
Following the retreat, the participants reported both feelings of spirituality and health improvements — including less tension and fatigue. They also noted "more intense religious and spiritual beliefs" and an more feelings of self transcendence. The neuroimaging post-retreat displayed a drop of between 5 to 8 percent in dopamine and serotonin binding, meaning that even more of these feel-good chemicals could be accessed by the brain. The two neurotransmitters are associated with feelings of spirituality and positivity, as well as the regulation of emotion and mood — so maybe I should turn my phone off every once and a while...
While the benefits seem pretty clear, there is still much more exploration to be done on the physical affects of long-term, intense religious activities. "In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers," Lead author Andrew Newberg said in a press release. "Our team is curious about which aspects of the retreat caused the changes in the neurotransmitter systems and if different retreats would produce different results. Hopefully, future studies can answer these questions."