Neuroscience and Fundamentalism
By Kenneth M. Heilman and Russell S. Donda
Tikkun, October 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
The gifts of artistic expression, societal development, and technological
innovation all result from the ability to question the status quo. This
capability results from an evolved and complex brain.
Clinging to a
currently accepted practice and searching for new solutions represent two
very different ways of dealing with circumstances. Adherence begets
consistency or stability; creativity leads to change. Adherence behavior
could involve a more primitive or phylogenetically older portion of the
Could this same logic offer some insight into why some people
seem unwilling to break free from certain beliefs or ideologies which are
contrary to sound science or lead to acts of inhumanity? Especially when
those beliefs stem from an unconditional adherence to religious
How is it that one person can find it utterly
intolerable to believe anything other than a given interpretation of
religious doctrine, while another appears comfortable with adding his or her
own meaning to the same literature? It is conceivable that the mystery
underlying these distinct approaches arises from a difference in brain
A number of the behaviors we employ are either genetically
programmed or imprinted at an early stage of development. Many are
controlled by procedural memories and can be performed without conscious
awareness. More complex problems might not be solvable by these routines. In
this case, declarative memories, formed throughout our lives as we acquire
additional knowledge, are often activated to address them.
strategies are often insufficient for dealing with many of the issues and
problems that confront us. Fortunately, the human brain provides us with
capacity to reason. In its two major forms, convergent and divergent,
reasoning is an essential means of solving problems. Convergent reasoning
involves assembling known information and results in a solution within the
realm of what is already known. Divergent reasoning enables a person to
arrive at a previously unknown solution.
Animals and people with a
frontal lobe injury display an odd behavior: they touch or grasp things and
then have trouble letting go. Termed physically adherent, such brain-injured
subjects are incapable of disengaging from the object. In 1966, Oliver
Zangwell of Cambridge showed that frontal lobe damage or dysfunction was
associated with a disruption in divergent reasoning.
Active areas of
the brain have an increased blood flow that can be observed using brain
functional imaging. Using this technology, Carlsson and colleagues at Lund
University studied subjects while they were performing a divergent reasoning
test. The subjects demonstrated an increase in frontal activity. Individuals
who produced the most creative responses had more frontal lobe activation
than those who adhered to normal thinking.
Studies suggest that faithful adherence
to a single reasoning strategy on tests means that parts of the frontal
lobes are inactive, have failed to fully develop, or have even been damaged.
By unconditionally obeying religious tenets, some people may be relying on
the phylogenetically older, more posterior portions of the brain.
Convergent reasoning can be an effective way to approach problems.
Certainly, the wisdom to be found in consistent or unchanging behaviors can
play a vital, stabilizing role in society. If something familiar is working
for us, we need not abandon it. The practice of religion and a belief in the
divine can be a deeply significant and profound source of meaning in our
We are suggesting that being stuck in a doctrinal belief
system which is intolerant of another interpretation, or one which
repudiates science and promotes intolerance, is a move away from the kind of
reasoning that has brought humanity its marvelous advances.
what we know about brain growth, it is possible that a child taught only to
follow, and not to personally wonder about or question doctrine, will suffer
from an abnormal development of the frontal lobes.
divergent thinking ability of children who attended secular versus religious
schools was studied by Dafna Hirschmann of Haifa, Israel. Students who
attended the secular schools had higher scores in divergent reasoning tests
than those who attended religious schools.
The capacity for
creativity is gifted to humans alone. Questioning what we know remains
AR (2007) Good idea, probably
too simple (like left brain — right brain and so on) but nice anyway.