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Brain Damage One Cause of Religious Fundamentalism

A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia shows that religious fundamentalism is at least partially the result of brain damage in the prefrontal cortex. Damage in this area of the brain causes the decrease in cognitive flexibility and makes people more rigid, scientists at the private Northwestern University in the US have shown.

Traits like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness are affected in people who suffer damage in this part of the brain. “Religious beliefs can be thought of as socially transmitted mental representations that consist of supernatural events and entities assumed to be real. Religious beliefs differ from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or when new theories with better predictive power emerge. On the other hand, religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly associated with conservatism,” a report of these findings on website ‘Raw Story’ said.

Explaining the aggression associated with fundamentalism, reporter Bobby Azarian, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience, writes: “Fundamentalist groups generally oppose anything that questions or challenges their beliefs or way of life. For this reason, they are often aggressive towards anyone who does not share their specific set of supernatural beliefs, and towards science, as these things are seen as existential threats to their entire worldview.”

The paper in Neuropsychologia was written on the basis of research led by Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University. It used data from Vietnam War Veterans, a number of whom had damage to brain areas suspected of playing a critical role in functions related to religious fundamentalism. “CT scans were analyzed comparing 119 vets with brain trauma to 30 healthy vets with no damage, and a survey that assessed religious fundamentalism was administered. While the majority of participants were Christians of some kind, 32.5% did not specify a particular religion,” ‘Raw Story’ said.

‘Cognitive flexibility’ refers to the ability to switch from thinking about one concept to another and to think about multiple things simultaneously. It is a crucial skill in adapting to new environments. Brain imaging research showed that a major neural region associated with cognitive flexibility is the prefrontal cortex. Researchers looked at patients with lesions in this region and searched for correlations between damage in these areas and responses to religious fundamentalism, by administering a questionnaire.

The results were as expected, and damage was shown to correspond to religious fundamentalism. Openness was measured using a widely-used personality survey known as the NEO Personality Inventory.

The research suggests that extreme religious indoctrination harms the development or proper functioning of the prefrontal regions. However, authors assert that besides brain damage, genetic predispositions and social influences must also be studied.

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