Can spiritual retreats cause changes in the brain?
Spiritual retreats are becoming as popular as yoga and meditation retreats around the world. They are designed to help people achieve spiritual and psychological growth regardless of their religious beliefs.
The programs offered at spiritual retreats stem from various traditions and customs, incorporating many elements that offer opportunities for mediation and prayer among other transformational experiences which reduce stress, enhance wellbeing and evoke strong emotional responses. This sometimes leads to life-changing consequences. Previous studies have shown that spiritual experiences spark changes in the brain and that what is felt during an emotional experience is similar to feelings of love.
While these various elements of the spiritual retreat have been studied, there has been no report of the neurophysiological effects that take place in people who participate in such retreats.
A preliminary study from the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, funded by Fetzer Institute, was conducted to understand the effects relating to dopamine and serotonin in a group of participants during a seven day-intensive retreat.
Significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters were associated with changes in participants at a psychological and spiritual level and researchers think that this could prime participants for the powerful positive spiritual experiences that they reported.
Both dopamine and serotonin are part of the reward and emotional system of the brain. Dopamine participates in the mediation of cognition, emotion, and movement – all of which are affected by spiritual retreats. Dopamine is especially involved in reward pathways by inducing positive emotions, motivation and also improved cognitive abilities. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in the brain, spinal cord and nervous system. It is known to be particularly involved in basic emotional responses and mood.
A total of 14 participants were recruited for this study comprising of eight males and six females, ranging from 24 to 76 years old.
The participants attended a seven-day Ignatian spiritual retreat at the Jesuit Center at Wernersville in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. The retreat was located on 240 acres of natural surroundings, which was very quiet and beautiful, and participants could take advantage of the grounds as part of the retreat. Most of the retreat was performed in silence.
After a morning mass, participants spent most of the day in silent contemplations, prayer and reflection. They attended a daily meeting with the spiritual director for guidance and insight and, after returning from the meeting, were asked to complete a number of surveys.
The surveys showed a marked improvement in perceived physical health, stress and fatigue. The participants also reported increased feelings of self-transcendence, religiousness and spirituality which were associated with change in dopamine binding.
Using DaTscan single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) on the participants before the retreat and closely following them during their seven-day retreat, researchers found a decrease in dopamine transporter by 5 to 8 per cent and serotonin transporter binding by 6.5 per cent, which could make more of the neurotransmitters available to the brain.
These significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters were associated with changes in participants at a psychological and spiritual level, and researchers think that this could prime participants for the powerful positive spiritual experiences that they reported.
However, the study was unable to pinpoint which aspects of the retreat contributed to these changes and why – whether it is was the overall reduction in stress, particular aspects of the retreat or a chance to get away from work and daily stressors.
Another interesting question that remains is if different retreats would produce different result. But this study has established the groundwork for future investigation into these questions.
For now, we know that a spiritual retreat causes changes in our brain, enhances feelings of wellbeing and awakens our mind-body experience.
Source: Religion, Brain & Behavior
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