Scientists link religious fundamentalism to brain damage
A study finds a brain impairment that may make people more religiously dogmatic.
By Clare Eugene | Feb 11, 2020 | Print-friendly

Religious fundamentalism is partly a product of a certain cognitive impairment, states a study published in the journal Neuropsychologia. The researchers posit that limited function in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex renders some people more prone to rigid ways of thinking and less cognitive openness, and therefore more inclined to holding intensely dogmatic religious beliefs.

The researchers, led by Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University, have previously researched the prefrontal cortex and found that it is strongly linked to "cognitive flexibility," which they define as the ability to think about multiple ideas simultaneously and to switch from thinking about one concept to another. Limited cognitive flexibility may make for more dogmatic thinking that is not open to new information, the researchers said.

In this latest study, the team analyzed CT brain scans of 119 Vietnam War veterans who had suffered brain damage in areas of the prefrontal cortex. Grafman and colleagues compared them with set of CT scans of 30 veterans who had not suffered any such damage.

They also had all 149 veterans take a survey assessing their religious beliefs. The majority of veterans identified as Christian of some kind, though 32.5% did not specify any particular religion.

The veterans with damage to their prefrontal cortexes generally gravitated toward more fundamentalist religiousity, the researchers noted. The researchers suggested that the specific brain impairment made the individuals less open to considering alternative points of view or new evidence that might contradict their pre-existing beliefs.

"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 told reporters