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Gazette Premium Content Study seeks faith's effects on brain

The Associated Press - Published: March 3, 2014

University of Utah researchers studying religion's effects on the brain are gearing up to study the minds of Mormons who have come back from recent missions.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports researchers will recruit returned missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve as volunteers.

As part of the study, the missionaries will undergo brain scans while they're shown faith-related images and videos and asked to recall spiritual experiences they might have had.

"Our goal is to find people who can say, 'I'm feeling something now,'" said Jeff Anderson, the head researcher and an associate professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah.

There are some unique features of the LDS faith that make missionaries very conducive to research, he said.

The group is ideal because they are relatively young, healthy people who have "thousands of hours of practice" pointing out the exact moments they are undergoing a religious experience. The researchers are looking for 15 to 20 men and women in their 20s who consider themselves active, believing members of their church.

Anderson said the planned study is innovative because few other universities have done similar ones.

He leads the new Religious Brain Project, which is set to involve Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University, Westminster College and the University of Utah.

People who volunteer and are chosen for the study will be shown video clips produced by the LDS church that are designed to evoke a spiritual response. They will have about an hour for scripture reading and prayer. All the while, they will be undergoing an MRI scan that records images of their brains.

The research team hopes to use the findings to determine how spirituality affects the parts of the brain that control social characteristics, such as whether someone chooses to give to charities or how they interact with friends, family and significant others.

Only a handful of similar studies have been done, which included one study where researchers observed meditating monks, Anderson said.

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