A new study found that people who have experienced certain kinds of brain damage are more receptive to religious fundamentalism.
Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University and his team of researchers studied a group of Vietnam War veterans. 119 had experienced brain trauma, and 30 had not. Most were Christians, but about a third of them said they had no religion.
Grafman believed that damage to the prefrontal cortex would make someone more prone to fundamentalism. This brain region contains two specific areas associated with cognitive flexibility, the ability to update one’s beliefs based on new information.
Fundamentalism discourages critical thinking and asking questions, so Grafman hypothesized that people whose prefrontal cortex suffered some sort of trauma – and therefore have less cognitive flexibility – would be more likely to accept fundamentalist messages.
Which is what he found. Participants with lesions to the parts of the prefrontal cortex important in cognitive flexibility scored higher on a survey that assessed religious fundamentalism.
In further testing, the participants with brain damage scored lower on a psychological test that measures cognitive flexibility and a test that measures open-mindedness.
The results are not just about the effects of brain trauma, but also to a possible neurological origin of some people’s fundamentalism. Neuroscientist Bobby Azarian writes at Raw Story that there are other reasons these parts of the brain might not function like they do in others, like substance abuse or genetics, and even suggests that “extreme religious indoctrination” could hinder the development of the prefrontal cortex.
The study needs to be repeated and brain trauma was only able to explain 20% of the variance in fundamentalism the researchers found, so it’s not proof that every fundamentalist you argue with on Facebook was dropped as a baby.
Instead, it’s another piece of the puzzle that explains why some people are able to accept indoctrination and resist contradictory information, while others can’t help but question what they’ve been taught.