Ask a Neuroscientist: Why is prayer so motivating? Is it because of dopamine?

Do some people experience a rush of dopamine when they pray or preach the gospel?
— Ann Vorhees

What is it exactly about prayer that can be so motivating? Having been raised Catholic, naturally my thoughts turned to St. Teresa of Avila as I was mulling your question over. She was a sixteenth-century Spanish cloistered nun, a mystic and quite possibly an epileptic who wrote volumes on contemplative prayer, during the practice of which she reported experiencing some pretty wild visions. Here’s a famous one about an encounter with an angel:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. St. Teresa, at least, certainly seems to have enjoyed praying.  Source:

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. St. Teresa, at least, certainly seems to have enjoyed praying. 


Some common types of prayer are the repetition of verse—be it scripture or a mantra—and an everyday kind of inner speech (“Are you there, God? It’s me, A Neuroscientist.”). But prayer can also include a range of profound emotional experiences that go far beyond the everyday, as St. Teresa so vividly describes.

The role that dopamine could play in any of this is tough to pin down. For one thing, nobody’s directly measured what you’re asking: whether there is a surge of dopamine-based communication between neurons during prayer. For another, what kind of prayer are we talking about? There are so many spiritual traditions.

There have been a handful of studies that have looked at general brain activity (not dopamine-related activity specifically) using fMRI scanning while people are praying, like this one on Carmelite nuns recalling past feelings of union with God. They observed widespread activity in emotion-related brain networks. And interest in the neural underpinnings of the closely related practice of meditation has grown in the past several years, as well. This experiment, for example, compared the neural activity that accompanied Buddhist mindfulness meditation versus a ‘Hindu-inspired’ meditation that had the goal of reaching the self-transcendent state of samadhi. During mindfulness meditation, they saw activity in areas involved in attention, which may relate to the nature of this meditation: it demands intense focus in attention on the body or breath. (The activity pattern during the Hindu-style meditation was not as easy to interpret.)

I also found this study, which measured something perhaps closer to what you’re thinking of: they specifically observed dopamine release, except what they asked participants to do was to listen to music. They found that there was intense release of dopamine during ‘peak emotional responses’ to the music. Which is not exactly prayer, but can be pretty transcendant. 

What these types of studies don’t have in common are their results. They’ve found that a wide range of brain networks are active during spiritual experiences--but different networks in different kinds: it seems to depend on what people are doing, exactly, when they pray.

William James, the "Father of Modern Psychology", circa 1890

William James, the "Father of Modern Psychology", circa 1890

These results are a lovely 21st-century confirmation of one of William James’ really, really extremely seminal hypotheses put forth in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. The book consists of his notes from a series of lectures given as guest faculty at University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901 and 1902, back in the good old days when guest lecturers apparently invented entire new disciplines to lecture on. Among his many fascinating arguments was the idea that religious emotions are cut from the same cloth as everyday emotions; they’re just emotions that happen to be turned toward a religious topic. Religious awe is awe toward the divine, but it’s fundamentally similar to the awe an atheist might feel about the natural world. Religious ecstasy is a just lot of happiness, but about God. Religious guilt is guilt that occurs in the confession booth. Et cetera. The implication, according to James, was that religious emotional experiences were perfectly amenable to psychological inquiry, which was convenient, as he was supposed to deliver a bunch of lectures on psychology.

From the types of experiments I described it seems that, just as James argued, prayer is an intricate composite of many more run-of-the-mill psychological processes (attention, memory, emotion, speech). And each one—this is the ‘modern update’ part—is accompanied by the neural correlates you’d expect to see during that process, regardless of whether it’s occurring in a religious or secular context.

Building from this idea, I would wager that in prayer, dopamine does the same thing it normally does. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical signal produced by a small set of neurons deep in the midbrain that spritz it liberally throughout the front half or so of the brain. Dopamine has become the subject of heavy attention from the popular and scientific press for its role in motivation and reward. The precise functions of dopamine and the neurons that use it to communicate have been hotly debated, but generally it seems dopamine signals something good is likely to happen, and you should really go for it. And that’s not just true of abnormal states of craving like addiction, but also of the desire for things like food, music, and, one presumes, most anything experienced as positive.

So perhaps this is why you’ve put forth this very plausible hypothesis that dopamine is involved in driving people to the act of prayer. If a person finds any practice worth returning to over and over again, it must being doing something for them, and I think you’re right that dopamine signaling in the brain probably mediates this process of behavioral reinforcement at the biological level.

But this is really not telling us much about prayer specifically. I had been wondering whether St. Teresa’s writings, to return to our favorite prayer enthusiast, might shed some light on the most centrally rewarding aspect of prayer. She’s only one person, but she does appear to be an expert on the topic. And, from what I could understand, it seems that for St. Teresa—who literally wrote the some book(s) on Christian contemplative prayer—prayer starts with a meditative quiet, progresses through a sequential shutting-down of mental faculties and the sense of self, and culminates in total, effortless, joyful union with God.

That sounds like a pretty motivating experience. So what is the neural basis of ecstatic union with the divine? If there was ever a question we’ll never be able to answer (or get funded by the NIH), it’s that one. Never daunted, I gave it a try.

19th Century Nitrous Oxide Administration. From "The discovery of modern anaesthesia", 1894.

19th Century Nitrous Oxide Administration. From "The discovery of modern anaesthesia", 1894.

To try to get a handle on this I took another cue from William James. He was entranced with the idea that intoxication with nitrous oxide could induce what felt subjectively like genuine mystical experiences. For so-called entheogenic drugs, the high sometimes includes mystical feelings of transcending the self and being profoundly connected to nature or the divine. Whether this process actually involves the divine is another matter altogether, but the fact remains that there are chemicals out there that can cause an intense feeling of self-transcendence and that, conveniently for our purposes here, have known molecular targets in the brain.

What are those targets? To take three examples of psychoactive substances that have been used to achieve feelings of transcendence of the everyday self in religious rituals at various times and places in human history, Salvia divinorum acts through the dopaminergic system, but both psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca primarily affect the serotonergic system. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter, which has an important but incompletely understood role in emotion—you may be familiar with it because it’s the target of SSRI antidepressants. And the two neurotransmitter systems affect each other indirectly in complex ways.

So I’m matching your dopamine hypothesis of prayer with my own dopamine/serotonin hypothesis of spiritual self-transcendence.