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Millcreek Journal

Do spiritual experiences show up on an MRI scan? Dr. Jeff Anderson discusses the human brain

Jan 14, 2020 09:21AM ● By Sona Schmidt-Harris

The brain is divided into different functional networks that neuroscientists study in many conditions. (Dr. Jeff Anderson/Salt Lake City)

By Sona Schmidt-Harris | [email protected]

Dr. Jeff Anderson is usually the most soft-spoken person in the room, and it can be easy to assume that he doesn’t like you. However, he can’t simply turn off who he is, a keen observer of data. As a neuroscientist, he is interested both in human behavior and the biology of the brain. Observation, in the end, may prove to be more interesting to him than interaction with others.

Some interaction was needed, however, for Anderson to meet his wife, Keri, whom he met in college. “Keri was the most ravishing student in abstract algebra,” Anderson said, almost smiling. They have been married for 26 years and have four children. Anderson grew up in Holladay and now lives in Millcreek.

He earned both an MD and PhD in neurobiology from Northwestern University. He is now an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Utah. It was his BS and master’s degrees in mathematics that led him to want to study neurobiology.

“I was interested in solving challenging problems,” Anderson said. The brain “is the high country. It’s where you go to find really interesting, challenging problems . . . my goal is always to use rigorous tools to understand the brain and its architecture, how it is wired together and how it works. I love abstract mathematics and ideas. The brain was the frontier.”

Of all the studies in which Anderson was involved, “The Religious Brain Project” received the most attention in popular culture. “It was discussed on ‘Good Morning America’ with Miley Cyrus. It was a headline for ‘The Onion,’” Anderson said. It appeared in news outlets all over the world.

He and his colleagues studied returned missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because they were individuals who had similar religious training and were young and healthy. “They are able to do the one thing that you need for imaging the brain, which is to say, ‘I’m feeling something spiritual right now.’ And that’s exactly what we were looking for,” Anderson said. All participants were devout practitioners of their religion.

“We managed this study on a shoestring budget,” he said.

Their findings were stark. “We were amazed by what we saw. First of all, we found that they were able to feel the spirit in a laboratory setting. Inside the scanner, it can be loud, but it’s also a private place, and we found that people had reported experiences that were similar to an intense worship service. Almost everyone came out of the MRI scanner in tears,” he said.

Anderson and his colleagues asked the subjects to engage in prayer or scripture study. They also provided religious stimuli within the scanner. “So, a lot of the heavy lifting was already done by the LDS Church,” he said.  

“When we looked at the images of the brains, there was one thing that really stood out to us, and that was that across four separate types of stimuli independently, we saw the same areas in the brain light up. It was highly reproducible, and that's not a common finding in our business.”

“And what was most interesting to us is the region that seemed the most reliably activated of all of them is an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is the pleasure or reward center of the brain.”

The nucleus accumbens is also very active when an individual takes cocaine or methamphetamines. Additionally, the nucleus accumbens is active when parental bonding takes place or when listening to music.

“There's just one course circuit that is associated and very much engaged during religious practice.”

Anderson has also done extensive research in multiple sclerosis. “What we find in multiple sclerosis is that the areas that work together are not as precisely synchronized in timing. So, because the signals take longer to reach the endpoint, the brain, which relies on this very precise timing, isn't able to systematically work together as a network in the same way.”

Scientists understand multiple sclerosis rather well because it is so visually obvious in MRI scans. “Multiple sclerosis is much more approachable than diseases like bipolar disease or schizophrenia,” Anderson said.  

“If we have 30 people with depression and 30 people without depression, we can see statistical differences,” he said. However, when scientists attempt to find out if an individual patient has bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, “We have nothing to offer,” Anderson said.  

There is overlap in the brain between different syndromes including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD and ADHD. “Often, it's much more challenging than people realize to put a label on somebody that you see in your office, because those labels don't often really translate well onto the messy, complex symptoms that people have,” he said.

About 10 years ago, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Tom Insel, proposed that what was needed in mental health was to eliminate symptomatic classifications of mental health disorders. Instead, these classifications should be replaced by a brain-based disorder, wherein the disorder could actually be seen in an MRI, EEG or some other concrete measurement of brain disorders.

“And so, the thought was if we could find a brain diagnosis, we're more likely to actually be able to help people and find some kind of consistent result for medication that is useful. We have been incredibly unsuccessful over the last 10 years. We've tried billions of dollars of research that's been invested in finding biomarkers . . .  and after all of that effort, we still have zero to offer in terms of imaging diagnoses of mental health disorders,” Anderson said.

However, there is hope. “I think we'll get there, but the tools we have aren't good enough. We have not yet been able to achieve that dream of brain-based diagnosis. We're on our way,” he said.

With the obesity epidemic in the United States, neuroscientists are also attempting to seek answers as to why we overeat. “The hypothalamus is really important,” Anderson said. “It’s deep inside (the brain) and has to do with a lot of regulation of appetites and desires. We know where in the brain a lot of that takes place, but how to modulate it can be really challenging. It's a hard place to study in the brain.”

Anderson has spent most of his career studying autism. “And what I’ve found is that there are reproducible differences.” People with autism are very good at local processing of information, such as visual discrimination tasks. “But when it comes to integrating information from different parts of the brain together, say you want to create some kind of an idea that involves stored memories, those kinds of tasks are very difficult for people with autism, and some of the tasks like that are social tasks.”

Most of us don’t realize how complex it is to navigate a social environment. “You have to know what the rules are. You have to be observant to changes in the environment, to subtle cues and integration.” Complex motor behaviors are also difficult for those with autism.

Like with most brain disorders Anderson studied, the timing function, meaning the speed and intervals at which the brain “fires,” is also a large factor in autism.

Anderson and his colleagues did a study that was a stepping stone into looking at the brain and autism. The study showed how it was “lateralized,” meaning how the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain behave. “The study said that we don't really see any hemispheric dominance, meaning that we don't see some people having a left dominant brain or right.”  

However, people still tend to believe that we are either “left-brained” or “right-brained,” and it simply isn’t true.

Anderson believes neuroscientists have much to offer regarding existential questions of human existence.

“What is our identity? What is the soul? What is the nature and the purpose of our brains? And the answers are stark, clear and uncontroversial among scientists . . . there are deeply disturbing findings that are at odds with what many people believe. Yet for some reason, neuroscientists have been hesitant to speak out in public policy and issues that relate to information that we have.”

Like the renowned bioethicist, Sherwin B. Nuland, who wrote “How We Die — Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter,” Anderson believes physicians and scientists must speak out.


“And so other people tend to speak out on our behalf, like with most politicians or popular psychologists — people who haven't studied the brain, and I think that's unfortunate. I think that there is a generation of neuroscientists that have been sequestered talking to themselves and not to the larger society, and that's changing. And that's going to dramatically influence how people see themselves over the next decades to come because neuroscience has a lot to say and a lot of it is not welcome. And a lot of it is very disturbing, and a lot of it's frightening, and a lot of it is exhilarating.” 

“Neuroscience has to weigh in on the human condition, and the purpose of life and the nature of our souls,” Anderson said.