Suffering a brain injury can make you more religious, scientists say

Study suggests damage to part of the prefrontal cortex makes people's beliefs stronger

Benjamin Kentish@BenKentish
Monday 08 May 2017 07:38
Damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex makes it harder for a person to change their views
Damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex makes it harder for a person to change their views

Suffering a brain injury can make people more religious, scientists have found.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, found patients who had a brain trauma were less willing to accept new ideas and became more extreme in their religious beliefs.

The study, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, found that lesions in a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were linked to higher levels of religious fundamentalism.

Previous research has suggested the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is important to enabling people to critically assess beliefs and ideas.

If it is damaged, the new study found, people have reduced “cognitive flexibility” - the ability to change their views in response to new evidence or ideas – and were therefore more likely to show signs of religious fundamentalism.

Jordan Grafman, one of the researchers involved in the study, said the findings revealed that a person’s religious beliefs were closely linked to their physical brain structure.

“The variation in the nature of religious beliefs are governed by specific brain areas in the anterior parts of the human brain and those brain areas are among the most recently evolved areas of the human brain”, he told PsyPost.

The researchers examined 119 US army veterans with brain injuries and another 30 veterans without any brain injury. All of the participants had served in the Vietnam War.

The team used brain scans to assess the extent of the damage to the participants’ ventromedial prefrontal cortex and then measured the strength of their religious beliefs using a commonly-used survey.

While highlighting the significance of their findings, however, the scientists also warned there are a number of other factors that determine the force of a person’s religious convictions, including personality traits and their social environment.

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