Spiritual retreats DO work: Study reveals just one day of meditation rewires your brain enough to reduce tension by almost 10%
Brain scans of spiritual retreat participants revealed changes in the dopamine and serotonin systems of their brain, which are part of our reward and emotional systems.
The research also revealed that people who returned from retreats reported improvements in their physical health, tension levels and fatigue.
'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,' said Dr Andrew Newberg, M.D., Director of Research in the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health and lead author of the research.
'Our study showed significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters after the seven-day retreat, which could help prime participants for the spiritual experiences that they reported.'
The researchers, based at the The Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, studied 14 Christian participants ranging in age from 24 to 76.
The participants attended an Ignatian retreat, which is based on the spiritual exercises developed St Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuits.
The participants began each day with a morning mass, followed by spending most of the day in silent contemplation, prayer and reflection. They also attended a daily meeting with a spiritual director for guidance.
Before and after they completed the seven-day retreat, the participants were given psychological surveys to fill out. According to the researchers, these showed that the participants reported perceived improvements in their health as well as their fatigue and tension levels.
Researchers also took brain scans of the participants before and after the retreat.
The post-retreat scans revealed decreases in dopamine transporter (5-8 percent) and serotonin transporter (6.5 percent) binding, which could make more of the neurotransmitters available to the brain.
This is associated with positive emotions and spiritual feelings.
In particular, dopamine is responsible for mediating cognition, emotion and movement, while serotonin is involved in emotional regulation and mood.
Participants also reported greater feelings of 'self-transcendence' - the overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires in spiritual contemplation and realization.
This feeling of self-transcendence was correlated to the change in dopamine binding found in the brain scans.
'In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers,' said Dr Newberg.
'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.'
The findings of the study were published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior.