Do damaged or disordered brains spawn extreme religious faith?

Do damaged or disordered brains spawn extreme religious faith? January 17, 2020

A study linking brain function and fundamentalist religious beliefs, referenced this week in a RawStory article, is not new; it was first published by the science journal Neuropsycologia in 2017. But its findings of the essential role brain-health plays in beliefs is just as relevant today.

brains religious extremism christianity science reason
Satirical cartoon showing right-wing Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruze with a book depicted as a “Bible” of the Tea Party, a radical GOP movement. (Mike Licht, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

The study assessed Vietnam War veterans who suffered combat damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) region of their brains, a region “critical to representing religious beliefs” in the mind, researchers wrote in their final report.

The vmPFC, according to the website, is “located in the frontal lobe at the bottom of the cerebral hemispheres and is implicated in the processing of risk and fear. It also plays a role in the inhibition of emotional responses, and in the process of decision making.” It is also involved in religious ideation.

Researchers concluded in the study, titled “Biological and cognitive underpinnings of religious fundamentalism,” that although the ways the vmPFC enables religious belief is not definitively understood, it’s linkage to faith is clear.

We hypothesized that the vmPFC represents diverse religious beliefs and that a vmPFC lesion [a damaged area] would be associated with religious fundamentalism, or the narrowing of religious beliefs,” the study report concluded.

Researchers also found that damage in a particular vmPFC area — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) — is associated with even more pronounced fundamentalist ideology.

In other words, damage to those areas of the brain is associated with religious beliefs that are markedly closed-minded, resistant to intellectual nuance and complexity, and intractable.

Any secular-minded person who has ever had a discussion about faith with, say, a Christian or a Muslim fundamentalist, knows what this “narrowing” of thought looks like. Not a single contrary idea fairly is entertained; the fundamentalist views his or her essential religious beliefs as absolute and sacrosanct.

Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0

The RawStory article explained that religious beliefs, unlike other types, “are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly associated with conservatism. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of society among individuals within the group.”

Such absolutist and grandiose religious thinking has also been scientifically demonstrated in people with other kinds of neural damage, such as in epilepsy and schizophrenia, and also in the mental effects of psychoactive drugs. Read, for example, about schizophrenia’s role in such delusional ideation in this article on the website

The upshot of the Neuropsychologia study noted above is that brain health appears critical to rational beliefs.

“The findings indicate that cognitive flexibility and openness are necessary for flexible and adaptive religious commitment, and that such diversity of religious thought is dependent on dlPFC functionality,” the study report noted.

This brain area is “crucial” to religious belief, the report continued, and “patients with lesions [to it] would exhibit greater fundamentalism” and significant lack of cognitive flexibility.

In evolutionary terms, it’s clear why such manifestly delusional thinking characterized by fundamentalist belief would be so common among human beings, researchers pointed out.

“Evolutionary psychology explains the appeal of religious fundamentalism in terms of social functional behavior, since it promotes coherence and predictability among individuals within religious groups,” the study report states. “Fundamentalism requires a departure from ordinary empirical inquiry: it reflects a rigid cognitive strategy that fixes beliefs and amplifies within-group commitment and out-group bias. Recent studies have linked religious fundamentalism to violence, denial of scientific progress, and reinforced its role in prejudice towards out-groups. Fundamentalism is characterized by a rigidity and inflexibility in one’s beliefs.”

Such anti-intellectual ideation, then, could reasonably be viewed as a type of psychological pathology, although the researchers don’t explicitly describe it as such. But they do describe it as unscientific, unreasoned, a “departure from ordinary empirical inquiry,” and as “an extreme form of spiritual belief.”

Which is to say, fundamentalists look not to verifiable evidence for their beliefs but to their private, imaginary ideations and emotional responses to them, disconnected to the testable actualities of material reality.

Interestingly, the study also notes that prefrontal cortex damage does not affect religious thinking only, but also political ideation, and it seems to me a prescription for conservative Republican views. This tracks the reality that most fundamentalists are conservative Repbublicans.

In particular, fundamentalism is associated with the need for cognitive closure [meaning certainty], which mediates the relationship between fundamentalism and prejudice towards value-violating outgroups, with close-mindedness and preference for order and predictability accounting for the effect,” the report explains.

The bottom line of the study published in Neuropsychologia is that findings indicate that the vmPFC operates as an “essential hub” for brain circuitry involved in human religious belief, and that damage to the hub disorders its functioning and leads to extreme religious views.

Certainly, not all fundamentalists are mentally unbalanced in a clinic psychological sense, but the study makes clear that the same ideological extremism they exhibit mirrors that of people whose prefrontal cortexes have been damaged or disordered in some way.

Researchers note that previous studies have found negative links between religious fundamentalism and “higher-order cognitive processes.

“Intelligent individuals may be less likely to conform to a set of religious doctrines; a more analytic thinking style adopted by intelligent individuals has been demonstrated to discourage religious belief,” the Neuropsychologia researchers noted, referencing Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012, “and some beneficial facets of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also provided by intelligence and thus higher intelligence reduces the need to strictly adhere to fundamentalist religious beliefs and practices.”

In short, while prefrontal cortex damage signals potential fundamentalist ideology in some people, high native intelligence appears to mitigate against such extreme, nonempirical belief.

An important take-away from this study is its finding that the end result of a damaged or disordered prefrontal cortex is “diminished flexible conceptual thinking and reduced openness,” which leads to extreme, defensive ideologies.

How we might use that knowledge to lessen the toxic, anti-intellectual extremism now infecting American society, I have no idea. But it’s encouraging to know.

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