How an Ignatian retreat can change your brain

Researchers in America found that Ignatian spiritual exercises affected the brain’s ‘feel-good’ systems

Ignatian retreats appear to cause “significant changes” in the brain, according to scientists in the United States.

Researchers at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University studied the brain responses of pilgrims on an Ignatian retreat and published their results in Religion, Brain and Behaviour.

Dr Andrew Newberg, director of research at the institute, said: “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.

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

Dopamine is known as the “pleasure chemical” but is involved in a wide range of brain functions, from the control of attention to movement. Serotonin is often called the “feel-good hormone” and is involved in emotional regulation and mood.

Post-retreat scans revealed decreases in dopamine transporter and serotonin transporter binding, which could make more of the neurotransmitters available to the brain.

The study was conducted by the Fetzer Institute and included 14 Christian participants aged 24 to 76 who attended an Ignatian retreat and practised the spiritual exercises of Jesuit founder St Ignatius Loyola.

After morning Mass, the people on retreat spent the majority of the day in silence, with prayer and reflection, and met daily with a spiritual director.

Participants revealed a significant positive change in health, tension and tiredness and reported feelings of self-transcendence which researchers belief correlates with the rise in dopamine levels.

Dr Newberg said: “In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers. Our team is curious about which aspects of the retreat caused the changes in the neurotransmitter systems and if different retreats would produce different results. Hopefully, future studies can answer these questions.”




  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    I’m not sure the author understands that this research is proving that there is nothing outside ourselves such as souls, gods or devils, that are responsible for these experiences. They are all material-based and come from our brains. We understand how particles work with excellent precision, and we know that there are no actions of particles or forces that require some outside god or soul force in order to explain them. If such forces existed, we would have found them by now.
    There is a lot of research going on now into mindfulness training and meditation and biofeedback, and micro-dosing with certain drugs, in an attempt to unlock more of the power within our brains. Different meditation techniques provide different experiences, and this is what is being studied. Ultimately this kind of research removes gods and souls from the picture. There is no need for them to explain these experiences, as many believers once thought.

  2. Peter Aiello Reply

    I wonder how Ignatian retreats deal with the law of sin that Saint Paul describes in Romans 7:14-8:2?

Leave a Reply