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Utah study will scan brains of returned Mormon missionaries

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Image courtesy of Jeff Anderson, University of Utah University of Utah scientists will study the effects of religion on returned missionaries' brains using MRI scans like these, which show the portions of the brain that govern social behavior, such as charity and relationships.

By Lindsay Whitehurst

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 04 2014 06:47PM
Updated Mar 3, 2014 09:33AM

How does religion affect the brain? Does it make us more charitable? Less likely to divorce or commit crimes?

Researchers at the University of Utah are planning to study the brains of returned missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to examine how spirituality affects the so-called social brain.

The missionaries will be encouraged to "experience spiritual feelings" while undergoing MRI scans, allowing researchers to see how those thoughts impact portions of the brain that govern social behavior, such as charity and relationships.

"It’s astonishing how little has been done on traditional spiritual experience in neuroscience — a little on Eastern traditions, but only a few studies looking at more Western traditions," said Jeff Anderson, an associate professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah.

And Utah offers a population suited to this kind of research, he said.

"Our goal is to find people who can say, ‘I’m feeling something now.’ That’s what can really be conducive to an MRI study," Anderson said. "There are some unique features of the LDS faith that make it conducive to research."

Anderson and his colleagues are looking for volunteers who are returned Mormon missionaries — relatively young, healthy people who have "thousands of hours of practice identifying specifically when they’re feeling a religious experience."

He’s working with U. researchers Michael Ferguson and Jared Nielsen as well as pediatrics professor Julie Korenberg. They’re seeking 15 to 20 men and women between ages 20 and 30 who are active, believing members of their church.

During the study, the volunteers will be shown clips of spiritually evocative, church-produced videos and will have about an hour for scripture reading and prayer — all while inside an MRI machine, with researchers recording images of their brains.

A projector will send text or images onto a mirror inside the machine.

The study will use cutting-edge, high-resolution technology that could allow researchers to delve deeper into the brain than previous similar studies of meditating monks.

"We have the tools now to take it from a new perspective, scientifically," Anderson said. "We have better methods now."

The study is relatively small, in part because funding for this kind of work can be hard to come by, he said. Major funding sources such as the National Institutes of Health are more focused on diseases, he said.

But this study is the beginning of a new multidisciplinary effort to research how faiths of all kinds affect the brain.

"Religious and spiritual stimuli are among the most profound influences on behavior that exists," Anderson said in a statement. He directs the new Religious Brain Project, which will involve Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Westminster College as well as the U.

The project will be introduced to the public during an evening seminar Feb. 28. People interested in volunteering can get more information at religiousbrainproject.com or email j.anderson@hsc.utah.edu.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com" target="_blank">class="TEXT_no_Indent">lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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