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No, Scientists Did Not Link Brain Damage to Christian 'Fundamentalism'

According to a new study, certain types of brain injury are linked to an inability to understand other belief systems. But many news reports on the study suggest that it connects to specific "fundamentalist" or "extremist" religious beliefs. Science can do certain things, but this study means a great deal less than many headlines would suggest.

Here's what happened: Neuropsychologists at Northwestern University studied almost 150 Vietnam War veterans, many of whom had suffered brain damage, and discovered that those with brain injuries were less open to new and different religious beliefs.

"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's corresponding author, Jordan Grafman, told PsyPost.

Grafman and his team surveyed 149 Vietnam vets, 119 of whom had suffered penetrating traumatic brain injuries (pTBIs) and 30 of whom had no history of brain injury. They reported their results in the journal Neuropsychologia. Previous research had identified the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as critical to representing religious beliefs, so the researcher hypothesized that damage to the vmPFC would be associated with a narrowing of religious beliefs.

"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," the researchers explained.

But their results actually contradicted this hypothesis. Instead, Grafman and his team discovered that veterans with damage to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) had similar belief patterns to those with vmPFC lesions. The researchers also found that veterans with less openness to other beliefs did not necessarily have damaged dlPFCs — some merely had decreased cognitive flexibility and openness.

Grafman wrote that "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."

Grafman argued that this study highlights "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 parts of the human brain."

But the results of this study, like all scientific results, are very limited. "For this study, we recruited Vietnam Veterans with and without brain injuries," Grafman told PsyPost. "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."