University of Utah researchers study spirituality’s impact on the brain

Posted at 5:29 PM, Feb 05, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-05 19:29:55-05

SALT LAKE CITY – A professor at the University of Utah is working on a unique study that will study the ways in which spirituality impacts human brains.

"Since I was knee-high to a grasshopper I have felt like I wanted to help people," said Dr. Julie Korenberg, who is a University of Utah Professor who studies neuroscience, genetics and circuits of the brain.

Now Dr. Korenberg is heading a unique project that is fulfilling her dream of serving others. She, along with a group of researchers at the University of Utah, will be conducting a study to see how spirituality affects the brain.

"What is it in our DNA, in our genes, that contributes to this religious experience and how that affects us for good or not so good," Korenberg said.

The "Religious Brain Project," as it's called, kicked off this week after years of planning.

"These are some of the most fundamental questions to understanding human nature, so it's just beyond words exciting to us that we're at a point where technology has caught up that we can look at these experiences in a way that has never been explored before," said Michael Furgeson, who is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Utah involved in the project.

The first study will consist of a group of returned missionaries who served for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The participants are between the ages of 20 and 30 and are active members of the LDS Church. Researchers said Utah is perfectly suited for this type of study.

"This is the place for religious brain studies,” Furgeson said. “Utah has a uniquely devotional community that is very willing to participate.”

Participants will undergo an MRI scan. During that scan, they'll watch church videos, pray and read scripture.

"What this does, is it allows us to look at brain activity, so when subjects are identifying peak spiritual experiences or personal transcendent experiences they can indicate that to us and that is going to allow us to look at the brain regions," Furgeson said.

Researchers said they hope to start looking into other religions within the next year.

"I think this is one of the most important things that our society can do is to understand the nature of goodness and what makes us help others and what may not help us,” Korenberg said.