Researchers Establish a Link Between Brain Damage and Religious Fundamentalism

Alex Pietrowski, Staff Writer
Waking Times 

In an effort to understand the neural and cognitive pathways associated with strong beliefs and how some people seem more willing and able to challenge belief systems, neuroscientists looked at how authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism

In a study for Northwestern University entitled, biological and cognitive underpinnings of religious fundamentalism, researchers looked at the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as a critical portion of the brain for representing beliefs.

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

The hypothesis hoped to explain why some people are so closed-minded when compared to others, and how this characteristic either changed the structure of their brain, or how their brain was affected by their devout and unflappable beliefs.

“To test this prediction, we assessed religious adherence with a widely-used religious fundamentalism scale in a large sample of 119 patients with penetrating traumatic brain injury (pTBI). If the vmPFC is crucial to modulating diverse personal religious beliefs, we predicted that pTBI patients with lesions to the vmPFC would exhibit greater fundamentalism, and that this would be modulated by cognitive flexibility and trait openness.” [Source]

The findings serve well to establish a first link between religious fundamentalism and actual brain damage, an assertion that would surely confound those who believe so fervently in religion.

“Instead, we found that participants with dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) lesions have fundamentalist beliefs similar to patients with vmPFC lesions and that the effect of a dlPFC lesion on fundamentalism was significantly mediated by decreased cognitive flexibility and openness. These 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.” [Source]


Here, journalist Bobby Azarian explains what is meant by ‘religious beliefs:’

“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. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of society among individuals within the group.” [Source]

Relating this to the study, it would appear the findings indicate that certain people are more predisposed to latching on to beliefs and evangelizing them, and that those people are also more likely to show a lack of cognitive flexibility, or open-mindedness. Both of these characteristics are more likely to be accompanied by damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, thus establishing a link between radical religious fundamentalism and actual brain damage.

Read more articles by Alex Pietrowski

About the Author

Alex Pietrowski is an artist and writer concerned with preserving good health and the basic freedom to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. He is a staff writer for Alex is an avid student of Yoga and life.

This article (Researchers Establish a Link Between Brain Damage and Religious Fundamentalismoriginally created and published by Waking Times and is published here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Alex Pietrowski and

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