The intersection of the spiritual realm and the physical body is a fascinating place to spend time. It is here that the former’s influence on the latter is revealed plainly, thanks to the view in afforded by science.
The Religious Brain Project is a new study — among the first of its kind — undertaken by a group of academics keen to understand how the brains of people with deep spiritual and religious beliefs are distinguished from their less devout peers by way of a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach to the subject. Ideally, say the researchers, their efforts will uncover a more comprehensive appreciation for how religion and spirituality play a role in the inherent neuroscience of our physical selves and our social behaviour.
In the first iteration of the research, which engages scientists from the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Westminster College, the brains of newly returned Mormon missionaries will be examined with an advanced MRI machine as they undergo what they consider to be a religious experience. Participants — all of whom are between 20 and 30 years old and are committed adherents to the Mormon faith — will study scripture, engage in prayer and be exposed to religion-infused videos while inside the controlled environment of an MRI scanner.
“Religious and spiritual stimuli are among the most profound influences on behaviour, individuals and entire cultures that exist,” the study’s principal investigator Jeffrey Anderson has said. “Yet the neuroscience of religion and spiritual feeling is almost completely unknown. We want to study what happens in the brain when someone has a spiritual experience.”
The study will look to uncover this unknown by seeking answers to such fundamental questions as: “What happens in the brain during religious or spiritual experiences?” and “How is the brain changed by religious experience?”
More than that, researchers hope their efforts will uncover meaningful links between spiritually minded folks — along with their engagement in core religious experiences and rituals like scripture study and prayer — and their scoring on so-called “pro-sociality metrics,” such as rates of criminal behaviour, charitable largesse and divorce rates.
Such investigation is possible now, say the enthusiastic researchers, thanks to the development of sophisticated research tools that can gauge the brain’s behaviour during a person’s profoundly emotional and social interactions with activities conventionally associated with religion.
“There is this rift between science and religion, that they seem to be two completely different worlds,” researcher Jared Nielsen has lamented. “There’s no common vocabulary, and so they seem to butt heads a lot. But I think this is the perfect time to bring the two together and see what part each can bring to the table so that we can learn together and move forward.”
The study’s researchers expect to have some initial results from their efforts in about five months. While the project’s first study focuses exclusively on members of the Mormon faith, the research will eventually extend to embrace other religions as the initiative progresses.