Researchers have found that the Spiritual Exercises change our brains for the better.
Researchers at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University have found that Ignatian retreats cause “significant changes” in the brain. Dr. Andrew Newberg, the research director at the Marcus Institute, published the results of the study in Religion, Brain and Behaviour.
According to Dr Newberg, the study, which was funded by the Fetzer Institute, showed “significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters after the seven-day retreat.”
“Since serotonin and dopamine are part of the reward and emotional systems of the brain, it helps us understand why these practices result in powerful, positive emotional experiences,” he added, as quoted in the Catholic Herald.
Both dopamine and serotonin are closely involved in various brain functions, and both also give us a sensation of pleasure or well-being. Serotonin, in particular, helps regulate our moods and emotions.
The subjects of the study were 14 Christians ages 24 to 76 who attended an Ignatian retreat and participated in the Ignatian spiritual exercises.
After morning Mass, the people on retreat spent most of the day in silence, with prayer and reflection, and daily spiritual direction.
Before and after the retreat, the participants were put through a CAT scan so researchers could evaluate their brain activity.
The post-retreat scans revealed decreases in dopamine transporter (5-8 percent) and serotonin transporter (6.5 percent) binding, which makes more of the neurotransmitters available to the brain. The result is more positive emotions and spiritual feelings.
It was not only the CAT scans that pointed to a change. Participants reported significant improvements in health, with reduced tension and tiredness. They also reported feelings of self-transcendence, which researchers attribute to the rise in dopamine levels.
“The seven-day retreat I participated in was singularly transformative and helped me connect more easily to Spirit and re-connect to God,” one participant said, as reported in The Independent. “Also, before the retreat, I would definitely say that I had a limited range of emotion, particularly not feeling very empathetic and not able to cry. But, during the retreat, I felt the complete opposite and was much more in touch with a wide range of emotions.”
Dr Newberg said: “In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers. 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.”
This article was originally published in the Italian edition of Aleteia and has been translated and/or adapted here for English speaking readers.
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