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The Enkephalin Effect: how can humanism mimic the best bits of religion?

By Dr Barry Newman

Barry, a retired intensive care consultant, is the humanist representative on the Dorset Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education and a Humanists UK accredited school speaker. In this article, he explores what it is in religion that builds connection and asks whether humanists are missing a trick by not closely mimicking religion.

Religious belief, and particularly religious observance, benefits the religious in many and surprising ways. These benefits include increased subjective happiness and satisfaction with life, engagement in community life, trust in members of the same faith, a greater number of close friends and a lower prevalence of drinking and smoking. Religiously observant people experience less mental illness, lower suicide rates, lower blood pressure, undertake greater physical activity, have lower BMI and a number of other health benefits. Data also seems to show that the practising religious live on average five years longer. These claims are well supported by a great deal of high quality evidence (see further reading at the end of this article.) Naturally, the actual differences between the irreligious and religious vary widely across countries, but the global trend is clear. How can these findings be explained?

Approaching these observations from an evolutionary viewpoint, religion could provide benefits to members of a social group called the “group augmentation effects”. This somewhat controversial hypothesis suggests that in co-operative populations, altruism develops by evolutionary selection because it improves the reproductive success of individual group members. If this is correct, the question arises: What is the mechanism by which individuals in a society (human or animal) are induced to co-operate in a way that seems to contradict one of the basic tenets of evolutionary selection, which is improving only individual fitness to reproduce?

Primates are our closest evolutionary relatives and they live in social groups. They spend a significant portion of their days “grooming” each other, which includes actions like stroking, scratching, and massaging to remove foreign materials like dirt, dead skin, and parasites. It has been demonstrated that the enkephalin neuropeptide (a brain messenger protein molecule) is released by mutual grooming. Enkephalin induces subjective feelings of relaxation and wellbeing, and raises the pain threshold. Enkephalins, a subgroup of endorphins, are in fact our internal natural morphine and the reason why the drug morphine and related opioids have their effects is that they mimic the enkephalins.

Primate grooming stimulates the release of enkephalins

In primates, grooming involves slow skin stroking (at around 2cm per second) which activates a specific neural pathway in the skin that results in enkephalin release in the brain. Grooming seems to generate significant social bonding by stimulating the release of enkephalins. Put another way, apes seem to be enkephalin junkies, and giving each other fixes bonds their societies which provides a range of survival benefits for its members. We may call this the “group augmentation effect”.

Does religious ritual induce enkephalin release?

In humans, communal activities similar to primate grooming also induce raised pain thresholds and feelings of wellbeing. Stroking, hugging, laughter, social dancing, eating together, storytelling and singing all raise enkephalin production in the brain, which raises pain thresholds and has beneficial effects on subjective wellbeing. In addition to these activities, there is data that indicates that these subjective effects are induced during and after religious rituals performed communally by people who share a particular religious worldview. But does that involvement in religious ritual also induce enkephalin release?

Because enkephalins raise pain thresholds in humans as well as in primates, and because pain threshold changes can easily be studied in humans, it is possible to conduct research into whether religious activities induce enkephalin release in humans. Pain threshold changes are measured before and after an intervention (such as administering a drug or a religious experience) by using pressure, thermal or electrical stimuli on the skin. These experiments are conducted only on willing and informed volunteers, and the discomfort is minor. The results confirm that religious activities such as attendance at church services do raise enkephalin levels.

As well as modulating pain responses, enkephalins also have a well-recognised effect on the immune system, reducing inflammation, and this may well be the mechanism by which a range of physical health benefits occurs. So the release of enkephalin by social religious rituals and observance results in enkephalin release and this may well give the religious the wide range of mental and physical advantages mentioned above.

As atheist humanists we might applaud the global waning of religious observance and the rise of rationalism and empiricism. But how can we too reap the benefits of the mental and physical health-enhancing effects of auto-induced brain enkephalins that religion appears to provide? Trying to derive these benefits by convincing oneself of the existence of a god and adopting one of the many faith systems available is very unlikely to work for those who have a worldview that emphatically excludes the supernatural. But has a great advance from an irrational supernatural worldview robbed us of a precious tool with which to lead healthier and happier lives? How can an irreligious world harness these evolutionary-derived gifts in the pursuit of happiness and flourishing?

“Communally reciting, chanting or singing the Amsterdam Declaration may sound ridiculous, but is it?”

The key may lie in recognising and understanding what is the case, and then trying to harness this reality towards what we think ought to be. We cannot change the way our brains or minds work. So perhaps we need to encourage communal activities that flood our brains with enkephalins, for our physical and mental wellbeing. The challenge for atheists is perhaps not how to undermine or denigrate religion but how to identify its benefits and avoid its flaws by recognising its mechanisms and exploiting them within our worldview. Perhaps we need to focus on building humanist communities and perhaps not be too sensitive about avoiding activities which seem like rituals that may make humanism look like “just another religion”. The success of Sunday Assemblies perhaps shows the way. Communally reciting, chanting or singing the Amsterdam Declaration may sound ridiculous, but is it?

Further reading

Note on the thumbnail image

Dorset Humanists in the UK often invites members and visitors to a “Part Two” or “TalkBack” session after the main presentation. Chairs are arranged non-hierarchically in a circle and people are invited to discuss the talk they have just heard or something topical. Does this kind of group engagement deliver an enkephalin response more effectively than just listening to the speaker on their given topic? This follow-up interactive session does seem to be quite popular.

ChatGPT on humanism and enkephalin responses

We asked ChatGPT “How could humanist groups and activities mimic religious activities in producing enkephalin responses without annoying everyone?” ChatGPT responded as follows:

Humanist groups can mimic religious activities to stimulate enkephalin responses by engaging in activities that foster a sense of community, belonging, and emotional well-being, similar to what is often found in religious practices. This could include:

  1. Group Singing or Music: Music and singing can evoke emotional responses and a sense of unity, much like in religious choirs or congregational singing.

  2. Meditation and Mindfulness: Practices like meditation can induce relaxation and a sense of peace, similar to prayer or religious contemplation.

  3. Charitable Activities: Participating in community service or charitable acts can generate feelings of happiness and fulfilment.

  4. Regular Gatherings: Hosting regular meetings or gatherings for discussions, sharing experiences, or socialising can create a community feeling akin to religious congregations.

  5. Celebration of Life Events: Marking important life events like births, marriages, and even memorials in a communal setting can offer emotional support and a sense of continuity.

  6. Study and Discussion Groups: Engaging in philosophical or ethical discussions can stimulate intellectual and emotional engagement similar to religious study groups.

Incorporating these activities in a respectful and inclusive manner can provide the emotional and communal benefits of religious practices in a humanist context.

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