Researchers seek to study spirituality through Brain Project

For Michaelann Gardner of Provo, an MRI scan of her brain while having a religious experience sounds fascinating.

"The more you can understand what happens with religious experience, the more equipped you are to go deeper into that," said Gardner.

It also sounds interesting to Holly Welker — though for a different reason.

"My [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] mission was the most traumatic event of my life. ... I came to the conclusion that the attempt to convert people was essentially an immoral act," she said. "I want to know what’s happening in my brain."

Both women were part of a group of about 70 people who came to the University of Utah Clinical Neurosciences Center on Friday to hear about the Religious Brain Project, a new effort that’s envisioned as being a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach to the academic study of how religion influences the brain. The first study, already begun, will image the brains of returned Mormon missionaries with an advanced MRI machine as they undergo what they consider to be a religious experience.

"There is precious little known about perhaps the most dramatic experiences that influence all of us," said Jeffrey Anderson, an associate professor of neuroradiology at the U. "Which neural networks are involved in these religious experiences is not known."

He said that Mormon missionaries are good subjects for their work because they often know when they’re having what they tell researchers is a spiritual experience.

"They have a lot of practice in identifying that force, and we’re relying on them to tell us … what they’re feeling," he said. But researchers say they are aware that studying religion doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

"When you do something that isn’t as politically correct, that’s outside the usual, we have to work that much harder as scientists," said pediatrics professor Julie Korenberg. "We very much understand the study will be affected by the people that we choose."

They already have almost 200 volunteers for 20 spots in the initial study. They’ve asked each volunteer to complete a detailed questionnaire, and are now sorting through those forms to choose the subjects. Researchers expect to have some initial results in about five months.

To induce the so-called religious experience, the volunteers — while in the MRI machine — will be shown clips of spiritually evocative, LDS church-produced videos and will have about an hour for scripture reading and prayer.

David Pascoe, the chaplain at Primary Children’s Hospital, is skeptical the scientific work can illuminate spirituality.

"It seems to me this study says some things about the brain, but it’s not saying anything about religion," said Pascoe. "I think it’s sort of using religion as another avenue of looking at brain activity, but I don’t know what value it’s going to have for understanding human spirituality."

Anderson says the work does have value for people of faith as well as the broader scientific community.

"If you’re a devout religious individual, I hope what the study can do is tell you a little bit about how your brain is interfacing with your god," said Anderson. "Religion is the most powerful influencer of social interaction in our world, and to not understand what is happening in our brains … is really a shame."

But when it comes to understanding brain chemistry and how it functions on such a deep, personal subject, there are also ethical implications.

"Can we find out what made you feel that way and change that?" said one man who asked his name not be published. "You have to be cognizant of that at least."

The project could also go beyond neuroscience into the field of sociology. Chelsea Shields Strayer, a cultural anthropologist, said the social aspects of religion and how it developed along with the brain could be a rich field for understanding the modern world.

"We have to remember there is no such thing as religion. We created the term religion to explain a phenomena that we couldn’t necessarily explain," she said. "We can fully create communities in our imagination that later become real and affect our bodies. This is critical."