Why do people blindly and fervently follow Donald Trump? There may be a link between brain damage and the cult of fundamentalism. People have wondered whether there was a specific spot in the brain, the God spot, where spirituality originated. A new study in The Neuropsychologia journal discovered something interesting happening in the brain around religious fundamentalism.
Spiritual experiences involved multiple areas of the brain, and this is a budding field of science. Still, the Biological and Cognitive Underpinnings of Religious Fundamentalism study discovered lesions located in a specific part of the brain actually increased religious fundamentalism.
The study’s corresponding author Jordan Grafman at Northwestern University said:
‘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.’
The study examined male 119 Vietnam combat veteran brains with lesions caused by penetrating traumatic brain injuries. If the site of the lesions was in the front part of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the vets had a greater interest in fundamentalism than veterans without the lesions. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is associated with fear and risk. It is one of the latest evolved parts of the human brain and is located on the lower edge of the prefrontal cortex, which is located directly behind the forehead.
Then, the researchers compared their finding to 30 Vietnam veterans without brain lesions. Grafman emphasized that this study was limited:
‘For this study, we recruited Vietnam Veterans with and without brain injuries. They were all male American combat veterans. This limits the generalization to other groups of people including women, people from other countries, and people who come from cultures with different primary religious beliefs.’
Then, the scientist discussed additional variables that have an impact upon religious beliefs:
‘We need to understand how distinct religious beliefs are from moral, legal, political, and economic beliefs in their representations in the brain, the nature of conversion from one belief system to another, the difference between belief and agency, and the nature of the depth of knowledge that individuals use to access and report their beliefs.’
Grafman talked about how “beliefs have sculpted our behaviors:”
‘Beliefs have sculpted our behaviors for thousands of years and helped shape the development and sophistication of our brains. Such beliefs systems are dependent upon other aspects of our cognitive and social processes and those interactions would be important to understand. For example, how does openness in your personality affect how your form and act upon your beliefs? What about genetic predisposition and its effect upon belief systems?’
This study just touched the tip of the iceberg of this expanding area of study. Grafman continued:
‘While religious and other beliefs can be studied selectively and independently from other cognitive and social processes, their dependence upon, and interaction with, other brain functions will be an important area of research in the coming decades. As they say, “the devil is in the details.”‘
Wanting Zhong, Irene Cristofori, Joseph Bulbulia, and Frank Krueger also coauthored the study.
Featured image is a screenshot via YouTube.