BYU researches where religious OCD is activated in the brain

Patterson is one of many students who has dealt with scrupulous thoughts and behavior. BYU psychology and neuroscience researchers recognized the need to better understand this phenomenon.

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See also Religious OCD: When faith becomes an obsession 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Elizabeth Patterson never imagined herself struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) until it became a reality while she served a full-time mission. Her fixations were centered on doing what she thought was right, focusing on certain rules in the missionary handbook and striving for extreme perfectionism.

“I was stressed all the time,” Patterson said. “I struggled to feel happy and find purpose. I hurt my relationships with other people.”

Patterson realized she was struggling with scrupulosity, a form of OCD that manifests itself through an obsession with moral and religious issues.

“I would always say, ‘We need to do what’s right,’ and my companions would always say, ‘Chill! We need to follow the Spirit!’ The Spirit prompts us to do what’s right, but I just stopped listening,” Patterson said.

Patterson isn’t the only BYU student who has dealt with scrupulous thoughts and behavior. BYU psychology and neuroscience researchers recognized the need to better understand this phenomenon.

A look into the scrupulous brain

Kawika Allen is an assistant psychology professor and a scrupulosity researcher at BYU. He has conducted studies exploring scrupulosity in relation to legalism (the notion one has to earn God’s love to be worthy), family perfectionism and well-being among Latter-day Saints.

Last year, BYU neuroscience department researcher Jared Nielsen approached Allen and invited him to participate in a new study to detect where scrupulosity is being activated in the brain, and then comparing that to other OCD symptoms. The project is currently in the works and the plan is to have around 30-40 subjects with scrupulous tendencies to go through an MRI scan. Researchers will then observe whether there’s a consistent, localized area where scrupulosity is coming from.

“It may not tell us how it’s caused, but we can know where it’s coming from in terms of the location in the brain,” Allen said.

The research team consists of Allen, Nielsen, licensed psychologist Debra McClendon and students Benson Bunker, Eli Baughn and David Johnson. The team is in the process of conceptualizing the project. The next steps include drafting an Institutional Review Board (IRB) proposal to gain approval and then starting the MRI scans within the next few months.

BYU psychology major Benson Bunker joined Allen’s research team a year ago. The Henderson, Nevada native has personally struggled with scrupulosity, and researched it for an assignment in a psychology writing class. He joined Allen’s team after hearing about the opportunity from a friend.

Bunker, along with Allen and other team members, presented at the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP) conference in Salt Lake City last October. A major part of their presentation was gathering information on scrupulosity and directing attention to the issue.

For the upcoming research project, Bunker’s responsibility has been to compile a list of questions designed to trigger scrupulous thoughts. One of the main tasks subjects are expected to do is read and answer to standard religious-centered interview questions that are typically posed by Latter-day Saint leaders.

“A big issue for people with scrupulosity in this Church is going in and being interviewed by a bishop,” Bunker said. “We thought it would be a good idea to come up with similar questions that would typically be asked in interviews with church leaders.”

According to Allen, the black and white dichotomy in some of the interview questions tend to invoke scrupulosity in individuals more. He also said the interview questions are much better in terms of the language.

“The words are softer and in three of the questions, they include the word ‘strive’ so it’s not an absolute are you, or are you not,” Allen said.

When considering the well-being of scrupulous individuals, Allen believes the change of wording was a step in the right direction.

“I think the leaders of the church were inspired to change the interview questions because they know we’re human, that we’re imperfect and we have flaws,” Allen said.

Bunker believes many individuals who struggle with scrupulosity don’t know what it is or how they can overcome the symptoms attached to it.

“I hope they don’t think it’s normal for them to think they’re going to be cast into hell for a little mistake they made 10 years ago,” Bunker said. “I feel like if they understand what it is, and know there is help out there, that they can get better and still have a healthy relationship with God.”

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