The Three R’s – Religion, Recognition, Reward

DopamineThis analysis is quite interesting and serves to challenge us about the subconscious motives behind religious beliefs.   Studies show that cultural and behavioral predispositions are linked to chemicals in our brain, such as dopamine.  One of the most important functions of dopamine is in the reward system of the brain, the nucleus accumbens (NAcc).

It primes pleasurable behavior to repeat, such as sex, eating, drugs, and according to neuropharmacholocal studies, even  prayer and other religious behavior.  In other words, if there was no reward in it, you wouldn’t be interested.  Dopamine levels rise significantly in anticipation of a reward, e.g., heaven, recognition and approval.

Before reading excerpts from the analysis below, please read this short abstract from a neuropharmacholocal study:  –>  The Role of the Extrapersonal Brain Systems in Religious Activity  – PMID:16439158 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Religion Is Dopaminergic

A study out of Wake Forest University demonstrates how dominant monkeys have more dopamine than subordinates. We live for the thrill of positive recognition. Even second president John Adams thought so.

“A desire to be observed, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest as well as one of the keenest dispositions of man.”

We are acknowledgment machines. Living cells are as well. The only thing is, cells do non-stop and ‘seek’ feedback from their environment through their lipid bi-layer membrane. Even the molecules that form those cells, too, are feedback machines.

“Bigger,” “faster,” and “heavier” are all terms to explain the complexity of atomic development. These are all comparative adjectives.

Only by getting feedback from markers in an environment does an atomic structure “know” or sense that a change has taken place.  Not surprisingly, even our future will be dictated by this principle of recognition: Norbert Weiner, the founder of cybernetics, stated that artificial intelligence is based on feedback.  So whether it concerns real or fake intelligence, feedback/acknowledgment is the key to understanding it.

Consequently, since we are so imbued with desire to be recognized and need to receive feedback, then nature overly emphasizes that ability in us. Just as an elk can grow its antlers to excess and create a “fitness cost” due to decreased mobility, so too the peacock and other species can get too much of a good thing. So can humans, as well. As a Nature article reports, this overly equipping with ability is even found in dinosaurs. Guanlong Wucaii, a fossil from China, sports a disk appendage rising from its snout.  That “would have surely hampered the beast in its quest for food.” Yet this sacrifice most likely evolved because it made the dinosaur more dominant. [ Scientists dig up T. rex Precursor, AFP/AP/Taipei Times, February 9, 2006]

A more extreme case is the female hyena. This is the most dominant of female mammals in existence. Yet its fake phallus birthing channel causes harm and death to both mother and cubs often. Nature emphasizes acknowledgment through dominance even at the expense of health! Such feedback from being recognized in a positive way controls us. For example, isolated children regularly have brain atrophy as their brains decay from a lack of feedback. Dopamine from dominance often reigns supreme. And nature accentuates its quest for complexity by overly equipping existing abilities and thus forming new ones as a result. Religion seems to be just one more heightened behavior.

Furthermore, how ironic is it that we humans view other species’ adaptations as being strange yet we regard our own behavior as normal?! Still, people often regard foreign religions as being strange, yet not their own. The truth is, religious/superstitious behavior is simply one more odd adaptation like the elk’s antlers, or how a female hyena is more male than her male counterparts are. Yet all these adaptations allow for more dopamine through feeling dominant.

Combining all the above into a relatively neat package, humans’ need to escape reality developed as higher-order consciousness and awareness evolved. The mechanism for this relief from reality derived from people’s most used psychological function: the need to influence others and be recognized. Thus these needs evolved into an expanded survival instinct: the necessary delusion of religion. After all, religion is simply acknowledging—influencing an assumed Something or Someone in the expectation of being recognized—influenced by this Force in return.


Novelty generates dopamine in us, too, just like intoxicants do. The “mysterious revelations” of religion have novel implications and manifestations. We prefer novelty over the expected when given the choice. Yet we enjoy predictability too because we can feel comfortable and in control. Religion provides both of these two variables.  Furthermore, combine the need for delusion with our need to worship the dominant/heroes. A study published in Current Biology describes how primates will “pay” a cherry juice reward in order to view female specie members’ behinds (primate pornography).

They will also pay to view images of dominant specie members, too . This appears to be a form of hero worship. [ S.V Shepherd, R.O. Deaner and M.L. Platt, 2006, Social Status Gates Social Attention in Monkeys, Current Biology 16(4):119-20.]  The satisfaction of reward is clearly evident simply through the viewing of these images of the dominant members. This study helps us to understand humans’ propensity to worship celebrities like religious figures. It also strengthens the concept that hero worship is rewarding – therefore dopaminergic.  Added to this is our psychological drive to be acknowledged. For example, to feel well acknowledged activates reward dopamine.

The smoking gun for the evolution of religion is that it rewards believers. And nature rewards adaptive behavior for a reason.  University of Colorado at Colorado Springs psychologist Tom Pyszcynski advocates in his “terror management theory” that we need to delude ourselves to survive. Delusion is adaptive. Psychologist Cordelia Fine in her A Mind of its Own: How Your Mind Distorts and Deceives (W.W. Norton, 2006) is another case in point: her term for this behavior is our “deluded brain.” Thus magical thinking is a necessary delusion.

Children display this tendency more so than adults. They talk to their toys and animate them, for example.  In the wider perspective, to face an otherwise difficult and cruel life is just too real for most to face. Yet such magical thinking is also an impetus for creative – as well as superstitious – behavior. Religion is therefore satisfying. To not know is less gratifying than to know about something – even if the knowledge is wrong.

Research demonstrates that expectation is more dopaminergic than actually receiving the thing desired. As Tom Pyszcynski stated, to realize that “we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to decay and die,” is far too negative for most of us. Therefore, the mesolimbic/striatal dopamine pathways evolved a solution.  To be rewarded through a delusion of grandeur is beneficial. Our heightened acknowledgment capacity provides that ability to happen. To feel ascendant through reward dopamine means to feel more assertive, confident and even dominant over obstacles. Basically, people get rewarded to be deluded.

Excerpts via Religion Is Dopaminergic


(1) Jan Beck and Wolfgang Forstmeier, Superstition and Belief as Inevitable By-products of an Adaptive Learning Strategy, Human Nature, Volume 18, Number 1/2007, p.35-46.
(2) A. Abi-Dargham, J. Rodenhiser, D. Printz, Y. Zea Ponze, R. Gil, L.S. Kegeles, R. Weiss, T.B. Cooper, J.J. Mann, R.L. van Heertum, J.M. Gorman and M. Laruelle, Increased Baseline Occupancy of D2 Receptors by Dopamine in Schizophrenia, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), July 5, 2000, vol. 97, no. 14, 8104-8109.
(3) Robert Mathias, Novelty Seekers and Drug Abusers tap same Brain Reward System, Animal Studies show, National Institute on Drug Abuse Notes, Volume 10, Number 4, July/August 1995.
(4) S.V Shepherd, R.O. Deaner and M.L. Platt, 2006, Social Status Gates Social Attention in Monkeys, Current Biology 16(4):119-20.
(5) P.W. Czoty, Ciara McCabe and M.A. Nader, Behavioral Pharmacology: Assessment of the Relative Reinforcing Strength of Cocaine in Socially Housed Monkeys using a Choice Procedure, Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics: Fast Forward, August 30, 2004.
(6) Scientists dig up T. rex Precursor, AFP/AP/Taipei Times, February 9, 2006. The original story appeared in Nature, February 2006.
(7) Bruce D. Perry, Childhood Experience and the Expression of Genetic Potential: What Childhood Neglect tells us about Nature and Nurture, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands, 2002. As reprinted in Brain and Mind, Vol. 3, No. 1, April 2002, pp.79-100.
(8) Matthew Herper, Happiness is Mostly Genetic, Forbes, September 23, 2004.
(9) Brian Bethune, Why you think you’re Wonderful, Macleans, October 9, 2006.
(10) J.H. Barkow (editor), L. Cosmides (editor), J. Tooby (editor), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, Oxford University Press, New York NY, 1992, pp. 202 & 581.

Another interesting article:  Dopamine & Anticipating Rewards

US Copyright Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107


6 thoughts on “The Three R’s – Religion, Recognition, Reward

  1. Hi Victoria, THis is definitely what we see in rehabs “Research demonstrates that expectation is more dopaminergic than actually receiving the thing desired” Strange thing the human mind. (And the monkey mind by the seems!) How was your weekend? Jo

    • Hey Jo. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. I thought this information was invaluable and compliments other research I’ve read. What a pity we waited so long to study the brain. It’s interesting how the ancient Egyptians never considered the brain important.

      The Egyptians believed that the heart, rather than the brain, was the source of human wisdom, as well as emotions, memory, the soul and the personality itself. For this reason, the heart was one of the only organs not removed from the body during mummification.

      I hope your weekend was relaxing. I spent most of mine researching, reading, and preparing for future posts. I had planned to get out of the house but it’s been so hot and humid the last couple of days. I love the Autumn and Spring, but especially Autumn. 🙂

        • I have, and have watched several of Gregg Braden’s videos. I think it’s cool that the heart and gut have neurons, especially the gut. The reasons I think it’s vital that we study the brain is because, unlike the heart or gut, when the brain is damaged, diseased, and/or high on dopamine, it can affect not only the individual but the masses.

          Happy Monday.

        • Oh, another note—the knowledge we’ve gain regarding brain development in children. Simply fascinating. Don’t even get me started, I could seriously ramble on. lol

          It’s past 11PM here. You’ve been spared. I’m off to bed. Hope the rest of your week is Aussie awesome like you. 🙂

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