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 brain.

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 fundamentalism?

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 function.

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.

Learned 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 lives.

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.

Based on 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.

The 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 vital.

AR  (2007) Good idea, probably too simple (like left brain — right brain and so on) but nice anyway.