U of U Researchers Study Science Behind Spiritual Experiences

Feb 20, 2014

A group of neuroscientists at the University of Utah are attempting to discover how religious and spiritual experiences affect social lives and brain activity, beginning with the LDS community.

Researchers at the University of Utah study how religious experiences affect the brain.
Credit Religious Brain Project

Researcher Jared Nielsen is working on the Religious Brain Project. He said this is one of the first efforts to study a religious population and how the brain processes their spiritual experiences.

"We’re coming from kind of a clean slate looking at this LDS population," said Nielsen. "We think [it] is a really good sample to look at because of that culture of understanding when you’re actually having a religious and spiritual experience and being able to identify that, and then also being able to act on those experiences."

Nielsen said they will use an MRI scanner to observe brain activity as participants engage in various spiritual activities such as reading scriptures, praying and watching religious-oriented movie clips. The group hypothesizes the “social regions” of the brain like the amygdala and the default network will be activated by the experiences.

"Our working hypothesis right now is that regardless of which religious faith you espouse, that the same biological mechanisms would process, so at least in the brain the same biological mechanisms would be in place," said Nielsen.

The research team hopes the study will facilitate dialogue among different religious groups and between religious groups and the science community.

"We think that with this particular study we can show that at the heart of both of these communities that they’re really trying to get at and acquire understanding and knowledge and truth," said Nielsen. "They may be using different methods to do that, but in the end, they actually could arrive at similar conclusions."

Nielsen said they will begin the study with an LDS population sample, but aim to branch out to different religious populations. For more information about the study and how to participate, visit the study's website.