Scientists link religious fundamentalism to brain damage

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A study published in the journal Neuropsychology has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The results suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by decreasing cognitive flexibility and openness – a term in psychology that describes a personality trait that involves dimensions such as curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.

Religious beliefs can be thought of as socially transmitted mental representations that consist of supernatural events and supposedly real entities. Religious beliefs differ from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or as new theories with better predictive power emerge. On the other hand, religious beliefs are generally not updated in response to new scientific evidence or explanations, and therefore are strongly associated with conservatism. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and consistency of societal rules among individuals within the group.

Religious fundamentalism refers to an ideology that emphasizes traditional religious texts and rituals and discourages progressive thinking about religion and social issues. Fundamentalist groups generally oppose anything that questions or calls into question their beliefs or way of life. Because of this, 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.

Since religious beliefs play a major role in the conduct and influence of human behavior around the world, it is important to understand the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a psychological and neurological perspective.

To study the cognitive and neural systems involved in religious fundamentalism, a team of researchers – led by Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University – conducted a study that used data from Vietnam War veterans that had been collected previously. The veterinarians were specifically chosen because many of them had brain damage suspected of playing a critical role in functions related to religious fundamentalism. CT scans were analyzed by comparing 119 vets with traumatic brain injury to 30 healthy vets without damage, and a survey assessing religious fundamentalism was carried out. While the majority of participants were Christians of some sort, 32.5% did not specify a particular religion.

Based on previous research, the experimenters predicted that the prefrontal cortex would play a role in religious fundamentalism, since this region is known to be associated with what is called “cognitive flexibility.” This term refers to the brain’s ability to easily switch from one concept to another and think about multiple things simultaneously. Cognitive flexibility allows organisms to update their beliefs in light of new evidence, and this trait likely arose because of the obvious survival benefit such a skill offers. It is a crucial mental characteristic for adapting to new environments as it allows individuals to make more accurate predictions about the world under new and changing conditions.

Brain imaging research has shown that a major neuronal region associated with cognitive flexibility is the prefrontal cortex, specifically two areas known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). In addition, the vmPFC was of interest to researchers because previous studies revealed its connection to fundamentalist-type beliefs. For example, one study showed that people with vmPFC lesions viewed radical political statements as more moderate than people with normal brains, while another showed a direct link between vmPFC damage and religious fundamentalism. . For these reasons, in the present study, researchers examined patients with lesions in both vmPFC and dlPFC, and looked for correlations between damage in these areas and responses to questionnaires on religious fundamentalism.

According to Dr Grafman and his team, since religious fundamentalism involves a strict adherence to a rigid set of beliefs, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness present a challenge for fundamentalists. As such, they predicted that participants with lesions to vmPFC or dlPFC would score low on measures of cognitive flexibility and trait openness and high on measures of religious fundamentalism.

The results showed that, as expected, the damage to vmPFC and dlPFC was associated with religious fundamentalism. Further tests revealed that this increase in religious fundamentalism was caused by a reduction in cognitive flexibility and openness resulting from the alteration of the prefrontal cortex. Cognitive flexibility was assessed using a standard psychological card sorting test that involved categorizing cards with words and pictures according to rules. Openness was measured using a widely used personality survey known as the NEO Personality Inventory. Data suggests that damage to vmPFC indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by suppressing both cognitive flexibility and openness.

These results are important because they suggest that an alteration in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex – whether it is a brain trauma, a psychological disorder, drug or alcohol addiction, or simply of a particular genetic profile – can make an individual susceptible to religious fundamentalism. And perhaps in other cases, extreme religious indoctrination interferes with the development or proper functioning of the prefrontal regions in a way that impedes cognitive flexibility and openness.

The authors stress that cognitive flexibility and openness are not the only things that make brains vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. In fact, their analyzes showed that these factors accounted for only a fifth of the variation in fundamentalism scores. Uncovering these additional causes, which could range from genetic predispositions to social influences, is a future research project that researchers say will occupy investigators for many decades, given how complex and pervasive religious fundamentalism is and likely will continue. to be for some. time.

By studying the cognitive and neural foundations of religious fundamentalism, we can better understand how the phenomenon is represented in the connectivity of the brain, which could one day allow us to inoculate ourselves against rigid or radical belief systems through various types of mental and cognitive exercises.


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