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

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  • jcobabe Provo, UT
    Feb. 6, 2014 6:32 p.m.

    The philosophical understanding of mind/brain questions has been examined by thoughtful people for centuries. While neurobiology affords some fascinating new glimpses into this unknown country, there are still limits to what the technology can tell us. There is much we can infer. FMRI is useful for mapping regions of brain activity, as indicated by metabolic state, but we still cannot discern much about what that brain is actually doing. There is no magic machine that can actually read my thoughts and delve into the brain mechanisms that seem to constitute the mind. There is great value in the understanding of the nature of human thought.

  • Filo Doughboy Bakersfield, CA
    Feb. 6, 2014 2:27 p.m.

    For Jared Nielson, the LDS: Will he push for a good control group? I hope there is more to their study than observing young LDS missionary brains. How about the brain activity during religious experiences of young, focused jihadis? Or voodoo-trance activity, Santoria adherents, substance-enhanced Yemeni, peyote-high American Indians, etc?

    Or, sans chemical influences: Throw in brain activity of Salafis during dervishes, Holy Rollers, tongues-speaking Charismatics. The control group should be brain activity of participants at rock concerts, Super Bowl games, political rallies.

    I'm betting fighting over the remote will come in a close second to enhanced "plasticity"- IF you come up the winner. Third: The chocolate fountain at Golden Corral.

    Where do I sign up?!

  • Shazandra Bakersfield, CA
    Feb. 6, 2014 2:05 p.m.

    @patriot- I would like to agree with you about peaceful religious tenets vs those advocating jihad. But unless the peace adherents adhere to peace, it's just philosophy, right?

    1- Sadly, today's LA Times reported of Christian mobs terrifying/looting Muslim communities and vice-versa in Bangui, capital of Central African Republic. What was sectarian violence has turned to full-scale retribution on both sides. Muslim militias attack Christian villages not even involved in the prior looting.
    2- Arab Christian men are siding with any of the several insurgencies fighting against al-Assad in Syria because of the governments' destruction of whole civilian sections of Homs. This, despite the fact that the al-Qaida militias are known to have targeted young Christian women exclusively for rape and torture.

    Obviously retribution and war affect human "spirituality". I just wonder what happens to happy RM brain waves (or any other religious soul) when exposed to wartime atrocity and trauma. I think the brain goes into a whole other universe then, which nullifies the ethereal experience on a level we cannot comprehend.

  • cavetroll SANDY, UT
    Feb. 6, 2014 1:21 p.m.


    I was responding to "patriot" who stated that as long as the religion was true and based upon Jeses Christ and not a religion that preaches war, evil, Jihad. To assume that only Christian religion allows for spiritual experiences is completely ignorant of "patriot". I do agree with you.

  • Shazandra Bakersfield, CA
    Feb. 6, 2014 1:04 p.m.

    That is an excellent point, cavetroll. What about examining brains of any religious persons who end up deviating from the peaceful doctrines or ethics of their belief system? This would necessitate having a large set of samples beforehand, but would be very informative on the effects of "violence" on the brain. Be sure to include a non-religious control group for comparison.

    I have long wondered what happens to whole societies who turn to torture and murder. From wartime Germany to Serbia, North Korean to Somalia, Communist China or Russia, etc. We cannot fathom the Nazis or their complicit countrymen anymore than we know what turned the Iron County Militia in 1857. But something happens in the human brain to trigger violence of that magnitude when it overrides formerly civil people.

    One available group for this study, sadly, would be military personell, before and after combat. The high percentage of military suicides are PTSD-diagnosed.

    I hope the UoU study will go deeper than superficial cataloging and give useful data for future generations.

  • happy2bhere clearfield, UT
    Feb. 6, 2014 9:44 a.m.


    OK I'll bite. Where are the teachings of Hindu, Budda, Islam, or Christian hate filled and toxic? That some may interpret and do evil in the name of such teachings does not make the teachings themselves hate filled and toxic. For the most part it seems that religion is trying to teach the basic golden rule to people. And, I have heard that studies of the brain do show different human reactions to input that is either good of bad. Images of horror, like in war atrocities does elicit different brain wave reaction than images of something like babies or puppies, or images of a religious figure, like Christ. I think the study may yield some interesting results from the U of U.

  • skeptic Phoenix, AZ
    Feb. 6, 2014 9:23 a.m.

    @brtherJonathan, perhaps where you are off the track is in the definitions of absolutes and influences.

  • KanataHal Ottawa, 00
    Feb. 5, 2014 8:09 p.m.

    I believe that God has constructed this world so that things like this will never be provable, at least, not in a scientific way. Of course, we all have our own ways of knowing truth, and there's no doubt that a person can know things that are unprovable scientifically. The instruments (sensitive though they may be) may never be capable of picking up changes caused by metaphysical experiences since they are (in most faiths) independant of the physical world. Like trying to discover where in the body the mind is located (rather than just where is the brain,) I see this exercise as futile. But maybe they will get lucky and discover something useful along the way, regardless of their intentions.

  • Good Mojo Tooele, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 7:49 p.m.

    There is no scientific consensus as to what a "religious" or "spiritual event" is. Is kissing snake at a pulpit to prove your immune to venom a religious or spiritual event? Does claiming you had a vision from a heavenly messenger qualify? I worked at a mental hospital for a decade and a half, and these kinds of experiences or not uncommon to some. On the other hand, though having been raised by an atheist father (an atheist at least while living), I am an active temple going "Mormon" (and am quite comfortable being in evolution). I don't claim to have had a divine visitation, but I've had everything short of that. The reality is there is no standard measure for these kinds of experiences. Everyone has faith in something, just pick you're poison and live with the consequence of you're decision. "Seek and ye shall find", or alternatively no seek, no find.

  • slave American Fork, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 5:01 p.m.

    And why is a state run school being given money for this. Were are all the agnostics screaming about church and state.

  • Counter Intelligence Salt Lake City, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 4:54 p.m.

    @Apocalypse please

    "Reducing people to either antichrists or believers is a pretty narrow world view. I wonder if the study is powered to find a relationship between religion and persecution complexes."

    Since it was you who used the anti-Christ label; who exactly has the persecution complex?

  • 1.96 Standard Deviations OREM, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 3:19 p.m.

    Apocalypse please:

    For a recent example of how individuals can view the same scientific data differently, did you see the Bill Nye vs Ken Ham debate the other day? If you have the time, the 2 hour and 45 minute long recording is available on YouTube. Do a search for "Bill Nye vs Ken Ham debate." I personally don't agree with everything Bill Nye or Ken Ham said, but it was a fascinating debate nonetheless!

  • Craig Clark Boulder, CO
    Feb. 5, 2014 3:16 p.m.

    The article makes no mention of the religious backgrounds of the three researchers doing the study, not that I’m insinuating that they must be intending to predetermine an outcome. But since they are seeking returned missionaries under 30 who are still active members to be their study specimens, I’d like to know about their own backgrounds.

  • Apocalypse please Bluffdale, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 3:00 p.m.

    @1.96 Standard Deviations
    I agree that it's pretty amazing that people can look at the same evidence and draw entirely different conclusions. Confirmation bias undoubtedly plays a huge role as we filter information. I do admit that I don't follow the conclusion that because Mormons have a longer life expectancy therefore the LDS church is Gods one true church. But I wouldn't go so far and say that no amount of evidence is going to change a believer or skeptics mind. The formation of beliefs is pretty interesting stuff. Anyway I'm way off topic.

  • desert Potsdam, 00
    Feb. 5, 2014 2:35 p.m.

    There is an open and closed door to this.

    1. the closed door : And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.
    (Alma 12)

    2. the open door : in Abraham it says about the Facsimile 2/11...Also.If the world can find out these numbers, so let it be. Amen

    My 2 cents : ...and the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters (Abr.4)

    Such spiritual activity may calm down our neural functions, but to test the Spirit by any measure will be quite impossible.You cannot pray for fun or a medical exam.,Impossible.

    You cannot receive revelations to prove faith, nor can you digg up the Golden Plates to find evidence for men. And you cannot receive revelations twice.

    MR. MD you are either no member of the church, or you are trying to go where no man has gone before ?

  • cavetroll SANDY, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 2:27 p.m.

    "It all depends on the kind of religion. True religion based on Jesus Christ enriches and nourishes the brain while false religion based on murder, hate and Jihad is toxic to the brain and personality as a whole"

    Or true religion based upon the teachings of the Buddha. Or Hinduism. Or even Islam. Even some Christians are hate filled and are toxic.

  • Wanda B. Rich Provo, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 2:14 p.m.

    Sounds like a witch hunt. As was pointed out above, spiritual experiences are rare, but they are also unpredictable and cannot be constructed. Reading scripture, watching LDS videos, and praying may produce some nice feelings, but producing a genuine spiritual experience is a one-in-a-million chance, akin to closing your eyes and hitting a sparrow at a hundred yards with a BB-gun. Good luck.

  • brotherJonathan SLC, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 1:42 p.m.

    Religion gives faith based logic. LET ME HELP ALL OF YOU WITH SOME LOGIC.
    This is for all who believe: God Created all life.____
    1. If God created all things: he created instinct for all life to know what to do for survival, without learning.
    2. God created instinct which includes sex drive and other non-learned survival mechanisms.
    3. Satan has power over the flesh: Christian, Muslim, Judaism all believe this truth.
    4. Knowing 1, 2, and 3 are true: Instinct and Satan are the same entity. God created Instinct/Satan.
    "Intelligent Logic W/ use of the facts"
    Our Faith in God declares that Satan is Instinct: It is bodiless, powerful intelligence with power over the flesh, given that power by God. Because God has power over all things, we do not have power over the flesh, that authority was given to Satan by necessity.
    By Elder Jonathan L. Peterson, servant of our Lord Jesus Christ

    Maybe they should have a look and see if my brain is different than everyone else's? Understanding human behavior is controlled by an Artificial Intelligence program and not being able to share this info is very stressful. Ask Prof.Cynthia Berg,UoU

  • 1.96 Standard Deviations OREM, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 1:35 p.m.

    Apocalypse please:

    Keep in mind who is being studied. As indicated in the article: "They are currently in the process of recruiting study participants. Specifically, 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."

    Is this sample of individuals what you call a fair representation of the entire world and all its religions? No, of course not. This study is purposely taking a narrow view.

    Have you also seen scientific research about the LDS church that does not get polarized opinions?

    Case in point: Science indicates LDS members tend to have longer life-spans than the general population. This is faith-affirming for those who believe in the Word of Wisdom and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. However, church antagonists downplay this and twist it into something else. In short, doesn't matter what the data say. LDS church believers and LDS church antagnostics will continue to see with completely different lenses on that same data.

  • t702 Las Vegas, NV
    Feb. 5, 2014 1:24 p.m.

    Of all the important things in the world to learn and improve they come up with this this? I'm sure that the result of this study will help cure cancer and lower the health care cost

  • Apocalypse please Bluffdale, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 11:59 a.m.

    Reducing people to either antichrists or believers is a pretty narrow world view. I wonder if the study is powered to find a relationship between religion and persecution complexes.

  • LivinLarge Bountiful, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 11:41 a.m.

    True religion, pure and undefiled changes the "heart" not the "brain"...

  • 1.96 Standard Deviations OREM, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 11:21 a.m.

    Here is how the data from the study will be interpreted:

    1) The Korihor's of the world are going to say, like in Alma 30:16, "Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so."

    2) The Believers will say, like in Alma 32:24, "[...] for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand."

  • Two For Flinching Salt Lake City, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 11:13 a.m.

    @ riverofsun

    The amygdala and hypothalamus are collectively responsible for pretty much everything you listed.

  • Craig Clark Boulder, CO
    Feb. 5, 2014 11:06 a.m.

    "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger."
    - Proverbs 15: 1

    A gem of wisdom from the Bible having to do with the effect of behavior on the brain. Religion itself is another matter. Its moral and ethical base gets obligatory lip service that always seems to come second behind theologies and creeds that cause unending bitter contention.

  • fredsgirl1 usa, MA
    Feb. 5, 2014 10:12 a.m.

    To suggest that I am somehow less of a caring person because I am not religious is wrong. Remember, similar research has found that damage from even minor head injuries often results in fanitical religious followings in an individual. Fact.

    To research what makes the brain of a person more kind and caring would be more useful.

  • riverofsun St.George, Utah
    Feb. 5, 2014 9:52 a.m.

    How about a study, FIRST, searching a brain for love, kindness, hate, violence, etc.
    This really gives scientists and researchers something to work with that can change the human race!
    Isn't that more important?

  • Wally West SLC, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 9:42 a.m.

    re: Vic Steblin

    There is an area of the brain responsible for addiction. Apparently, it can't differentiate whether you get high on drugs/sex or religion.

    It makes sense when you consider Jimmy Swaggart and other religious figures temporarily turning to the dark side and celebrities who give up their wicked ways to embrace Allah or Jesus.

  • lovelyorchid taylorsville, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 9:37 a.m.

    I do not think that this is an important research because our brain is such a huge mystery for us. It is said that we only use 10% of our brain. If that is so, I do not think that religion will play a role when using the brain. The right side of the brain is used for creativity and imagination. I believe this is another feeble attempt at trying to control people's mind with religion. Religion can be taught. If someone comes to you and tell you that there is no religion, your brain is going to automatically try to find out why because of what we have been taught by our parents, teachers, clergyman/women, and psychology. That is why it is so important to guard your brain from the nonsense.

  • patriot Cedar Hills, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 9:34 a.m.

    It all depends on the kind of religion. True religion based on Jesus Christ enriches and nourishes the brain while false religion based on murder, hate and Jihad is toxic to the brain and personality as a whole.

  • Willem Los Angeles, CA
    Feb. 5, 2014 9:25 a.m.

    Very dangerous,brain tumors will be the result!

  • vidottsen Payson, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 9:23 a.m.

    How to keep this study unbiased and purely scientific will be a challenge. If the findings are inconclusive could it be conceivable that spiritual emotions are interpreted and or stored elsewhere in the body--say the heart for example?

  • Vic Steblin Prince George, BC, Canada,
    Feb. 5, 2014 9:01 a.m.

    The brain is easily adjusted by repeated electrical activity, called plasticity. That is why we remember our name, career, language, culture and religion. Also explains God, and spirituality.

  • windsor City, Ut
    Feb. 5, 2014 8:46 a.m.

    Heard a fascinating interview on NPR with guest John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society on this subject.

    He said neuro scientists had verified no brain area or function that could account for the experiences of random people in desperate situations chronicled in his two books.

  • Albert Maslar CPA (Retired) Absecon, NJ
    Feb. 5, 2014 8:16 a.m.

    OK for that study, but how about looking into the effect of no religion on the brain. Could really be an eye-opener.

  • Brian Utley Freedom, IN
    Feb. 5, 2014 7:49 a.m.

    Why don't they do a study on the really influential moments associated with religion? Moments dealing with all the fear, guilt, and shame associated with the traditional failures and shortcomings encountered when trying to measure up to unreasonable standards---"Be ye therefore perfect...," "I cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance..."---that sort of thing. Far more productive investigation; because it is more applicable, almost universal with people dealing with religion. Profound spiritual moments, even aha moments in social interactions are so few and far between that it's almost as if they are aberrations, worth academic study, but of only limited interest to ordinary folks like me.

  • Joemamma W Jordan, UT
    Feb. 5, 2014 7:34 a.m.

    Can't say that i trust anything that comes out of the U of U when it comes to religion, however I'll keep an open prospective on the findings.