Utah Researchers Launch 'Religious Brain Project' to Study Brain's Connection With Faith, Starting With Mormon Missionaries

Researchers from the University of Utah announced that they are launching "The Religious Brain Project," an initiative aimed at studying the effects of faith on the human brain, and will be starting off by examining Mormon missionaries.

"Religious and spiritual stimuli are among the most profound influences on behavior that exists. The neuroscience of spirituality, however, is almost completely unknown," explained project Director Jeff Anderson, who is also an associate professor of neuroradiology at the university.

"We want to study what happens in the brain when someone has a spiritual experience."

The project will seek to analyze how religious or spiritual experiences affect the brain and social experiences, and will first turn to missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Religious and spiritual experiences are among the most powerful influences on individuals and entire cultures. We are all shaped and defined by our experiences with religion. Yet the neuroscience of religious and spiritual feeling is almost completely unknown. We are seeking answers to fundamental questions, like 'What happens in the brain during religious or spiritual experiences?' and 'How is the brain changed by religious experience?'" Anderson explained.

The project director added that research will extend to other religious communities as well, and will look for healthy volunteers from ages 20 to 30. One of the main goals of the research will be to take a look at the connection between people with religious belief and their interaction with society, such as criminality rate, donations to charity, divorce rates, and other factors.

"One thing we would like to study is whether there are influences from core religious experiences and rituals like scripture study and prayer that condition the brain toward pro-sociality, or whether this may emerge from more complex cultural factors," the researcher noted.

Researchers will be looking for characteristic responses in the brain to spiritual experiences or feelings, such as enlightenment, chills, goose bumps, or equanimity.

Previous research into the effects of prayer on human health have shown a link between people who pray more regularly and those who remain in stable health. Researches from the American Psychological Associated noted in a 2011 study that people often turn to prayer as a "complementary treatment" for coping with both physical and mental conditions.

The official website of the Religious Brain Project shares information about how those interested can sign up to participate in the initiative.