Religious Brain Project seeks LDS missionaries

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Researchers will study the effects of private religious experience on areas of the brain known to be involved in social cognition. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Anderson.)
Researchers will study the effects of private religious experience on areas of the brain known to be involved in social cognition. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Anderson.)

Researchers in Utah are conducting a study called “The Religious Brain Project” to understand how spiritual experience shapes the brain. Researchers are hoping to use recently returned LDS missionaries and other religious people.

Dr. Jeffery Anderson, associate professor of neuroradiology and bioengineering, and director of function imaging at the University of Utah, is leading the project. The idea for such a study began five years ago as Anderson conversed with colleagues about what the brain experiences in religious contexts.

“We were struck by how important a force religion and spiritual experience plays in the world and how little is known about how the brain interfaces with religion,” Anderson said.

Anderson explained that spirituality is a quintessential social experience. Across faith traditions, spiritual experience is described as forming a connection to the other, stepping beyond or outside oneself, and communicating with the divine on social terms. Studies suggest that religious individuals may score higher on pro-social metrics, like giving to charity, in lower divorce rates, and highest in personality measure of agreeableness toward others.

“All of this suggests an opportunity to study the effect of private religious experience on areas of the brain known to be involved in social cognition,” Anderson said.

Anderson, as well as the other researchers, said recently returned LDS missionaries will be great subjects for the study because they are able to identify when they are experiencing religious or spiritual feelings.

“The purity of the sample makes it a unique population for study,” said Michael Ferguson, a BYU graduate, currently studying bioengineering and functional imaging alongside Dr. Anderson. “We are hoping this group will provide possible evidence of neuroplastic effects of prolonged religious service.”

Starting next month, the subjects will undergo an MRI scan while being exposed to spiritual experiences. Individuals will be watching LDS General Conference video selections, praying, studying scriptures and listening to hymns.

“We will be looking for regions of the brain most consistently associated with personal religious feeling and spiritual experience,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson explained how social dynamics contribute to the uniqueness of human evolution. He expects they will be able to observe the effects of spirituality on social behavior through this study.

The researchers are excited about the positive response from study volunteers and look forward to continuing to engage community dialog as the study progresses.

For more information visit “The Religious Brain Project” website.

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