Religion, Spirituality & Biology

In addition to the affective processes described here, some biological processes are also likely to undergird spiritual beliefs. Recently, we have started to investigate the oxytocin system, which is heavily implicated in social bonding processes, and might well support a larger sense of interconnectedness and closeness to a Higher Power. Levels of endogenous oxytocin have been found to correlate with measures of spirituality, however, no previous research has tested the causal hypothesis that increases in oxytocin might lead to increases in spirituality. We did so in a randomized placebo controlled study and found that the administration of oxytocin increased self-reported spirituality on two separate measures. Interestingly, oxytocin not only increased self-reports of connectedness – in line with the known effects of oxytocin on social bonding – but it also increased self-reports of meaning and purpose in life. It further resulted in increasing participants’ enjoyment of an initiation to meditation, at both explicit and implicit levels. Furthermore, in exploratory analyses, participants were also genotyped for polymorphisms in two genes critical for oxytocin signaling, the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR rs53576) and CD38 (rs6449182 and rs3796863). We also found that the effect of oxytocin on spirituality was moderated by oxytocin-related genotypes. These findings highlight the importance of considering biological markers not only as effects of religion and spirituality but also as predictors. It also further emphasizes that social affiliation and spirituality are connected, potentially in an upward spiral loop.

Relevant publication: Van Cappellen, P., Way, B., Isgett, S. F., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2016). Effects of oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11, 1579-1587. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw078

Media coverage

Over 55 international media outlets have covered research on oxytocin and spirituality (see full list here).

See our research featured in:

   The Huffington Post: ‘Love Hormone’ Oxytocin May Enhance Feelings of Spirituality.                                                           September 23, 2016

   Psychology Today: Oxytocin, Spirituality, and the Biology of Feeling Connected.                                                                September 28, 2016

   Science News: Oxytocin Enhances Spirituality. September 27, 2016.

   Live Science: Oxytocin Hormone May Boost Spirituality. September 21, 2016