A team of scientists has claimed to have discovered a link between a willingness to engage in religious fundamentalism and a clear-cut impairment in brain function.
Published in the journal Neuropsychologia, the findings propose that damage inflicted upon particular areas of the prefrontal cortex results in the diminishing of cognitive flexibility and openness. This, in turn, results in a susceptibility to accepting certain fundamentalist viewpoints.
Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University headed up the study, which collected data from Vietnam War veterans, many of whom had suffered brain injuries to areas in their prefrontal cortex. The CT scans of some 119 brain-damaged vets were compared to 30 healthy vets with no damage, before the subjects were put through a test which assessed their susceptibility and acceptance of certain fundamentalist values.
The scientists are convinced that the prefrontal cortex plays a key role in the sifting through of information, and thus any damage may affect one’s “cognitive flexibility.”
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Cognitive flexibility allows organisms to update beliefs in light of new evidence, and this trait likely emerged because of the obvious survival advantage such a skill provides. It is a crucial mental characteristic for adapting to new environments because it allows individuals to make more accurate predictions about the world under new and changing conditions.
According to conclusions made by Dr. Graham and his team, those with lesions on this crucial part of the brain were less open-minded and more difficult to sway from their root convictions. As such, due to the strict and outlined nature of a fundamentalist belief system, those with this type of brain damage would find it difficult to diverge from their chosen theological position.
The team also noted that tests revealed that the “increase in religious fundamentalism was caused by a reduction in cognitive flexibility and openness resulting from the prefrontal cortex impairment.”
The team added that dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex, whether rooted in brain trauma, a psychological disorder, substance abuse or genetics, “can make an individual susceptible to religious fundamentalism.”
“Human beliefs, and in this case religious beliefs, are one of the cognitive and social knowledge stores that distinguish us from other species and are an indication of how evolution and cognitive/social processes influenced the development of the human brain,” Grafman previously told PsyPost.
Grafman noted that personal belief systems have “sculpted our behaviors for thousands of years and helped shape the development and sophistication of our brains.”
“Such beliefs systems are dependent upon other aspects of our cognitive and social processes and those interactions would be important to understand,” he said.
Interestingly, Grafman and his colleagues don’t appear to offer a clear definition of religious fundamentalism, describing it simply as “the narrowing of religious beliefs,” which could be either good or bad, depending on the beliefs in question. For example, an earnest person of faith who actively seeks truth is likely to grow “narrower” in his or her beliefs over time.
As you’d imagine, there has been a widespread reaction to the story online.
“As much as I enjoy the implications of this, I think this framing is dangerous,” one person tweeted. “Plenty of people are religious fundamentalists without ‘damage’. This suggests a role for the prefrontal cortex that is interesting but not surprising.”