Religion has a profound effect on human behavior, but there's still much that we don't know about how it affects us, or why. A team of researchers in Utah started the Religious Brain Project in an effort to scan the brains of people during religious experiences. Right now, the group is focusing on members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Religious Brain Project began in February 2014, directed by Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., a faculty member at the University of Utah. This is one of the first scientific efforts to study the neuroscience of prayer.
"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?'" said Anderson.
The team recruited healthy volunteers between the ages of 20 and 30 who completed a mission for the Church of Latter-day Saints and are willing to have their brains scanned. The researchers asked each participant to enter an MRI machine and spend several minutes praying silently. Anderson said that they hope to scan 20 people before analyzing their results.
After the MRI scan, participants are asked to complete a survey describing their feelings with terms like "burning in the bosom" and "alignment of heart and mind." They also test participants' blood for levels of oxytocin, a chemical that is associated with things like pair bonding in couples, and social feeling. The team is looking for a possible connection between the areas of the brain that are activated by prayer, and the theory that religious people tend to be more pro-social.
So far, the project has had hundreds of volunteers from the LDS Church, which Anderson found surprising.
"I think some people worry that we're biologizing the religious response ... that that will demystify it or make it somehow less important," Anderson said.