Biological and Cognitive Underpinnings of Religious Fundamentalism

Dr. Jordan Grafman, Neuropsychologist and Director of Brain Injury Research at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab (SRAL) and a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine is the leader of a major international project on the neural basis of human beliefs that addressed the question:

Is there any correlation between an individual’s cognitive and neural pathways and his/her religious beliefs?

Why do only humans, among all species, appear to have religious beliefs? Studies using functional neuroimaging or studying patients with focal brain damage have suggested that the anterior, more recently developed, areas of the human brain are critical to representing religious beliefs, but the means by which the frontal lobes represent religious beliefs is uncertain.

Dr. Grafman and his colleagues have completed several studies on religious belief over the last decade including a study in 2017 that attempted to test the hypotheses that the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC) represents diverse religious beliefs and that a vmPFC lesion would be associated with religious fundamentalism, or the narrowing of religious beliefs.

Their findings suggested that individuals 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.

Put simply, 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.

Another way of putting it is this:

Critical thinking – evaluating hypotheses for truth and developing findings and conclusions from diverse facts and evidence is hard to do – it takes work – and it’s part of the activity that occurs in the prefrontal cortex. This might suggest a conclusion that accepting dogma on faith eliminates the need for critical thinking – thus creating a fundamentalist.

You can access details of the study and download a PDF copy of the study by clicking HERE.

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