Q&A: Cara Santa Maria revisits her religious roots

TechKnow contributor and science communicator on The Religious Brain Project

Ever wonder what’s happening in the mind when someone says they’ve had a religious experience? What parts of the brain flicker on or off when people see an image of Jesus? Or what feelings or sensations wash over a churchgoer during a particularly fervent gospel hymn? 

Neuroscientists Jeff Anderson M.D and Julie Korenberg M.D. at the University of Utah are equally curious. They started the Religious Brain Project as an effort to understand how spiritual experiences affect the brain and drive social cues. 

“Religious and spiritual stimuli are among the most profound influences on behavior that exists. The neuroscience of spirituality, however, is almost completely unknown,” said Anderson. “We want to study what happens in the brain when someone has a spiritual experience.”

Participants agree to partake in a study from inside an MRI machine. During the hour long scan, participants are presented with spiritual material – hymns and scripture quotes -  while Anderson and Korenberg try to capture the brain’s response in real time.  

TechKnow contributor Cara Santa Maria is a noted atheist and former member of the Church of Latter-day Saints. TechKnow caught up with Cara Santa Maria after her brain scan.

TechKnowTell us about your religious background growing up? 

Cara Santa Maria: I was raised LDS (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, colloquially known as Mormon).

When did you start transitioning away from the Church?

I questioned my belief in god nearly from the beginning. Despite that, I attempted to soldier through as a good LDS child, even getting baptized at the age of 8 and performing temple services, such as baptisms for the dead. As a young teenager, I began voicing my questions with my family. Finally, at age 15, I left the church altogether and began defining myself as atheist.

Participants in the study claim they “feel the spirit” what does that mean? 

In the LDS faith, like many other Christian denominations, "feeling the spirit" is a strong component of one's personal relationship with God. Specifically, Mormons believe that they possess the "gift of the holy ghost," which is bestowed upon them during their baptismal ceremony. Through this confirmation, LDS members describe feeling the spirit as a "burning in the bosom," a feeling of peacefulness, overwhelming emotion, or even subtle comfort. They describe this feeling as being different for different individuals and under different circumstances, some of which include listening to or performing music, praying, attending church services, and reading scripture. I personally have no idea what this feels like, as I do not believe in God. Although as a young person, as a frequent solo and choral singer, I often mistook the emotional response I had to music as "feeling the spirit."

You underwent an MRI and saw some religious themes and quotes, how was your experience? 

I was initially afraid to get in the scanner, as I know it can induce claustrophobia. But once inside, I was relieved to find the experience somewhat relaxing. The study materials were designed to elicit an emotional response, but I had surprisingly little feeling when presented with imagery from my religious upbringing.

How did your brain respond to seeing religious imagery again?

Although my brain activity was seemingly negligible compared to that of a religious person (under the study conditions), it is important to understand the parameters of the fMRI study. In this case, oxygen metabolism served as an indicator of increased activity and was only measured when the study participant indicated feeling a strong emotional response to the stimuli. That only happened to me once, and it was not a necessarily strong feeling (and definitely not a religious one).

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