Neurologists have identified brain damage that could be linked to religious fundamentalism
Hunting for God in our gray matter seems to be a popular topic for neurologists, with previous studies comparing religious effects with drug-induced ones, linking spiritual experiences with neurotransmitters like serotonin, and identifying which parts of the brain ( if applicable) could be responsible for a faith in the supernatural.
Today, a new study found that people with brain damage associated with planning become less open to new ideas, which is why some people are more likely to become extreme in their religious beliefs.
Led by neurologist Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University in Illinois, the study dug into a tragic but useful data pool known as the Vietnam Head Injury Study (VHIS).
In the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, Korean War veteran and neurologist William Caveness developed a registry of approximately 2,000 soldiers who had suffered head trauma during the conflict.
The detailed information gathered by medical staff has proven invaluable – not only to Caveness, but to other researchers such as Grafman.
Thanks to the prompt medical treatment that many of the wounded received, many soldiers survived their injuries and returned home where researchers continued to monitor their health and well-being.
Decades later, Grafman is still making interesting discoveries about the inner workings of the brain by studying it when it is damaged.
Last year, he discovered that parts of the brain in the frontal and temporal regions were responsible for downplaying the importance of mystical experiences.
In this latest research, he and his colleagues took the study one step further by examining the records of 119 Vietnamese veterans who had suffered a penetrating head injury and comparing them with the records of 30 veterans without brain damage as witnesses.
Tests performed on the group during a relatively recent phase of VHIS included a scale of religious fundamentalism – a standardized measure that requires participants to respond to statements such as “To lead the best and most meaningful life, it is must belong to the one and true religion. “
They also involved a measure of the veteran’s overall intelligence and cognitive flexibility by having him sort the cards into different categories according to different sets of rules.
Grafman and his team then used computed tomography (CT) scans to map the position and size of brain damage left behind by veterans’ injuries.
The researchers focused on veterans with damage to their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), which was already known to play a cognitive role in spiritual experiences, as well as problem solving, planning and task management.
They identified a relationship between lesions in these areas, the strength of veterans’ religious beliefs, and poor cognitive flexibility, suggesting that areas such as dlPFC play a key role in helping us stay open to various ideas inspired by experiences. religious.
Similar studies on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) found that damage to this region makes people more susceptible to misleading advertising, which has led other researchers to come up with an idea called false labeling theory to explain the role that these parts of the brain could play in providing us with a generous portion of skepticism.
This is not the case, say the researchers.
“Our results also challenge the ‘false belief tagging’ hypothesis,” the team wrote in their study, saying their research shows that fundamentalism is less about actively reserving doubt than opening up to being open to doubt. new experiences.
It is important to note that this does not imply that belief in the supernatural is caused by brain damage; epistemology – or the act of forming a belief – involves a rich mix of neurological processes that cannot be confined to a single piece of brain tissue.
On the contrary, research suggests that damage to parts of the brain involved in examining new evidence could make it more difficult for a person to assess their existing religious beliefs over other ideas.
There are also the usual caveats to consider in single studies such as these; for example, the subjects were all older American men who had suffered not only physical trauma, but psychological trauma from war as well.
But the research matches what we know about the role of the brain’s prefrontal regions in setting the stage for framing religious experiences.
“We need to understand how distinct religious beliefs are from moral, legal, political and economic beliefs in their representations in the brain, the nature of the conversion from one belief system to another, the difference between belief and action, and the nature of the depth of knowledge that individuals use to access and report their beliefs, âGrafman told Eric W. Dolan at Psypost.
Extreme religious ideology is a divisive political issue in the world today, and appears to continue to be so in the future.
Research like this could help us understand the neurological foundations of how our brains are wired to sort out facts from faith.
This research was published in Neuropsychology.