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Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and Northcentral University Receive $6.3 Million Grant to Research the Neuroscience of Religious Experience

Jan 31 2022

CHICAGO AND SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA (January 31, 2022) — The John Templeton Foundation has awarded Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and Northcentral University a $6.3 million grant to study the brain basis of religious thought. It is the first large project grant devoted specifically to this topic and the largest in terms of funding.

The neuroscience of religious cognition is an emerging field that seeks to better understand how people experience religion from a neurological and physiological perspective. Researchers in this field seek to discover which areas of the brain are responsible for religious experience, and what they can tell us about the brain’s mechanisms, broadly speaking.

Dr. Patrick McNamara, professor of psychology at Northcentral University and the author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge University Press), is one of the field’s founders. Dr. Jordan Grafman, the grant’s project leader, is the director of brain injury research at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. They will collaborate to study which parts of the brain are activated when people perform religious cognition tasks or undergo religious and spiritual experiences.

Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, which is the largest freestanding inpatient rehabilitation hospital in the United States, will serve as the primary site for this research. Dr. Grafman and his team will study up to 400 healthy research subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to evaluate the brain networks associated with attachment to God (vs. other attachments, e.g., a parent to a child). 

“Research has demonstrated that various forms of religious beliefs assist people in recovering from illnesses and coping with persistent medical problems,” said Dr. Grafman. “With this grant, we will examine which brain and cognitive mechanisms are responsible for this benefit. The more we understand the brain, the better equipped we will be to facilitate better patient outcomes. We are so grateful for the Templeton Foundation’s support of this important work.”

Dr. McNamara will lead a team of researchers at Northcentral University using neurophysiological headbands to collect data from study participants. These headbands have ultrasensitive detectors to pick up brainwaves, which can reproduce gold-standard EEG tests. 150 participants from around the world will be recruited to record their brainwaves while in REM sleep, as these are hypothesized to be related to specific forms of religious cognition.

The project will also open the door for Northcentral University doctoral students to engage with cognitive neuroscience research. The university’s Department of Psychology supervises approximately 280 doctoral dissertations at a given time, all in a fully online environment. Dr. McNamara anticipates many opportunities for student involvement in the project.

“This puts online universities on the map in terms of scientific research,” he said.

Most faculty at fully online universities aren’t expected to engage in rigorous scientific research, but Northcentral faculty must be experts in their fields to supervise master’s and doctoral students.

Roughly $3 million will support the research conducted at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and Northcentral University. The remaining funding will seed research at additional institutions, which will be selected via a robust request for proposal process over the next three years.

“Through these sub-grants, we’ll invite collaboration and innovation. Thanks to the Templeton Foundation’s support, the field will grow,” Dr. McNamara said.

The John Templeton Foundation crosses disciplinary, religious and geographical boundaries to fund work on subjects ranging from black holes and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. As of the end of 2020, the foundation had awarded $1.8 billion in grant funding to organizations in 57 countries.


About Shirley Ryan AbilityLab
Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), is the global leader in physical medicine and rehabilitation for adults and children with the most severe, complex conditions — from traumatic brain and spinal cord injury to stroke, amputation and cancer-related impairment. The organization expands and accelerates leadership in the field that began at RIC in 1953. The quality of its care and research has led to the designation of “No. 1 Rehabilitation Hospital in America” by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1991. Upon opening in March 2017, the $550 million, 1.2-million-square-foot Shirley Ryan AbilityLab became the first-ever “translational” research hospital in which physicians, scientists, innovators, technologists and clinicians work together in the same space, surrounding patients, discovering new approaches and applying (or “translating”) research in real time. This unique model enables patients to have 24/7 access to the brightest minds, the latest research and the best opportunity for recovery. Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. For more information, go to


About Northcentral University

Founded in 1996, Northcentral University is a regionally accredited, nonprofit, online and graduate-focused university serving professionals globally. Over 11,000 adult students are enrolled in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs at NCU, including business, education, health sciences, law, marriage and family therapy, psychology, and technology.

Northcentral University is a nonprofit affiliate of the private, nonprofit National University System. It is regionally accredited by WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC). For more information, visit or call 866.776.0331.



Meg Washburn, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab,, 312-238-6016

Kate Stober, Northcentral University,, 480-253-3497