A new study sheds light on why people who attend spiritual retreats report greater psychological well-being, after finding that such retreats may increase levels of "feel-good" hormones in the brain.

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New research offers insight into how spiritual retreats affect the brain.

Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA, found that individuals who attended a spiritual retreat for 7 days experienced changes in the dopamine and serotonin systems of the brain, which boosts the availability of these neurotransmitters.

Dopamine helps to regulate movement and emotional responses, while serotonin helps to control emotion and mood.

Co-author Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research in the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, and colleagues say their study provides insight into the emotional impact of spiritual practices.

"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," says Dr. Newberg.

Spiritual retreats can be defined as a place for people of varying spiritual beliefs to engage in practices aimed at reinforcing their faith and improving their health and well-being.

According to the researchers, an increasing number of people are visiting such retreats, and studies have shown that these individuals often report a reduction in anxiety, stress, and other psychological benefits.

"However," note Dr. Newberg and colleagues, "no studies have explored the neurophysiological effects of these retreat programs." The team set out to address this gap in research.

Reductions in serotonin, dopamine transporter binding

For their study, the researchers enrolled 14 Christian adults aged 24-76 years. Subjects were required to visit an Ignatian retreat for 7 days. Here, the participants engaged in spiritual exercises created by St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuits.

Each day, the participants attended a morning mass. For the rest of the day, subjects engaged in silent contemplation, prayer, and reflection. They also met with a spiritual director, who provided spiritual guidance and information on the aims of the retreat.

Before and after visiting the retreat, participants underwent DaTscan single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which enabled the researchers to assess their brain activity.

Subjects also completed a series of questionnaires that assessed their physical and psychological well-being.

After the 7-day retreat, participants demonstrated a 5-8 percent reduction in dopamine transporter binding, as well as a 6.5 percent reduction in serotonin transporter binding. The researchers say these decreases can lead to greater availability of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which can have positive psychological effects.

The participants also reported an increase in self-transcendence following the 7-day retreat, which the team says correlated with reductions in dopamine binding. Subjects also reported improvements in physical health, tension, and fatigue.

"Our study showed significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters after the 7-day retreat, which could help prime participants for the spiritual experiences that they reported."

Dr. Andrew Newberg

In future studies, the researchers wish to pinpoint the specific practices at spiritual retreats that are responsible for changes to serotonin and dopamine transporter binding. They would also like to determine whether results vary dependent on the type of retreat.

Read about how the "love hormone" oxytocin might intensify spiritual beliefs.