What's the effect of religion on the brain? U. launches new study

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 3:45 p.m. MST

At left, Henry Buswell, MRI research manager, demonstrates the use of the MRI at the Imaging and Neurosciences Center in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. Jared Nielsen, post-doctoral fellow is at far right along with Michael Ferguson, Ph.D. student at the University of Utah.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Three University of Utah researchers are hoping to learn what, if any, impact religious and spiritual events have on the human brain.

"Religious and spiritual types of feelings are among the most profound influences to behavior, how we interact with other people, and yet the neuroscience of spirituality and religion is almost completely unknown," Jeffrey Anderson, principal investigator on the project and assistant professor of neuroradiology, said Tuesday.

"It's staggering how little information there is about traditional spiritual experiences and the brain."

Anderson, along with Michael Ferguson and Jared Nielsen, launched the unique Religious Brain Study Project at the U.'s Brain Network laboratory this week. They have previously studied autism, Down Syndrome and Zen masters during meditation and, after five years of discussing such a project, decided to tackle the effect of religion on the brain.

"We think we have the tools now to do a study of brain activity during the really profound and deep types of emotional and social interactions associated with religion, and we're really excited to try and understand more," Anderson said.

They are currently in the process of recruiting study participants. Specifically, they are seeking members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served missions, are between 20 and 30 years old and are currently active in the faith. Participants will be asked to undergo an hourlong MRI scan during which they will take part in a set program made up of scripture, music, church-related videos and time for prayer.

"There's a very generous spirit in Salt Lake and Utah about participation in research, and also, these returned missionaries are a young, healthy cohort of people that have thousands of hours of practice in identifying spiritual experiences," Anderson said. "That's a really unique population."

He said they are collaborating with others at other universities in the state and in other fields, including genetics, in the hopes of eventually making Utah a center for these types of studies.

Nielsen, a post-doctoral fellow, said his hypothesis is that the brain will have similar responses to spiritual experiences, be they Evangelical Christian, Buddhist or LDS in nature.

"This is just the first attempt to figure out what is going on in the brain when we're having religious or spiritual experiences and then see how that is either different or similar when individuals of different religious faiths are having these experiences," he said.

As a religious, LDS person, Nielsen said the project gives him the opportunity to bring together his interests in God and the human brain.

"There is this rift between science and religion, that they seem to be two completely different worlds. There's no common vocabulary, and so they seem to butt heads a lot. But I think this is the perfect time to bring the two together and see what part each can bring to the table so that we can learn together and move forward," he said.

Ferguson, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Bioengineering, said the two subjects are an obvious pairing.

"When you look at neuroscience and when you look at the human brain, clearly the force that's driven the evolution of our brain is social dynamics. We are exquisitely social creatures as homo sapiens," he said. "When you look at religion and religious history, hands down religion is the No. 1 force in the social history of human beings, so that intersection of religion and of this supremely social organ, the human brain, is such a necessary set of questions for us to be exploring."

Anderson said he also hopes the understanding of brain activity in response to religion will provide a common language that will bridge people with different viewpoints.

"We're excited to acquire data as quickly as we can with the resources that we have," he said, noting that they have some funding constraints.

Those seeking more information or to participate in the study can go to the website www.religiousbrainproject.com.

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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