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The first spiritual experience I had as a young LDS missionary was one of enormous dread. It occurred in the spring of 1973, as I walked toward the front door of the old mission home on North Temple.

I was headed for two years of close association with personalities willing to speak, hear, feel and appear exactly alike. Past experience had shown that I wasn't well suited for this, and so I was terrified.

Some may argue that terror does not qualify as a spiritual experience. I say read the scriptures (take your pick) and you'll find lots of verses similar to "and such was their fear that their bowels did loosen, yea, even unto mightily."

Never mind. The real question is: What qualifies as a religious experience and how do we know we're having one? There's a lot of confusion and shouting on the matter.

A recent study reveals where religious experiences occur. It's not a matter of being touched in one's heart but rather in the head. That's right. As insulting as this sounds, it's also true.

The results of a 2014 study in which MRI scans were conducted on the brains of some 20 returned LDS missionaries have been released. And they're a little scary.

While being shown religious images and films that made them feel spiritual, the subjects' brains lit up in an area known as the "nucleus accumbens." It was physical proof that the spiritual experiences actually happened.

The feelings of joyful confirmation are real. We aren't just imagining them. What more proof do we need for spiritual truth than someone leaking mucous in front of a microphone? If that's all it takes, hooray.

Not so fast. These feelings are also real for every other faith out there. I'm betting the same area lights up in the brains of nuns, rabbis, pagan priests, televangelists and even easily excitable atheists.

There's another teensy catch. The nucleus accumbens is also the part of the brain "activated by feelings of romantic love, gambling and drugs."

Bet you didn't know that eyeballing a crush across the classroom was a legitimate spiritual experience.

This means that the warm fuzzy you have when witnessing is similar to what other people experience when doubling down or shooting up. It begs the question of whether we're speaking truth or just grooving on a burst of self-validation.

It could be argued that what you're feeling when you're deep in prayer surrounded by your family is also experienced by American Indians lit up by peyote.

Worse, it's probably the same feeling other people have when planning to bomb an abortion clinic, or calling for war, or browbeating people for money to further the work of God.

The feeling of joy or spiritual confirmation isn't always a bad thing. I experience it when I see the faces of my grandchildren and their mothers. Hell, my entire nucleus accumbens ricochets around the inside of my skull when my wife smiles at me.

Human feelings are always problematic. If what I feel when I write some columns is all it takes for spiritual validation, we're all of us in a lot of trouble.

Robert Kirby can be reached at or