Religion and damage to the frontal cortex

Here’s a neurological study to discuss. It’s about damage to the frontal cortex causing religious extremism/extreme fundamentalism. In other words- brain damage causing religious delusion.

That was the abstract. Here’s the link to the whole article:

I believe, in the days of Bedlam they used to perform Lobotomies on the frontal cortex of violent mental patients. It renders you a zombie.

A lobotomy, or leucotomy, is a form of psychosurgery, a neurosurgical treatment of a mental disorder that involves severing connections in the brain's prefrontal cortex.[2] Most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain, are severed. It was used for psychiatric and occasionally other conditions as a mainstream procedure in some Western countries for more than two decades, despite general recognition of frequent and serious side effects.

Bedlam: The Real Horror Story Of The Bethlem Royal Hospital

If the patient managed to survive the asylum at all, they and their families were typically worse for the wear by the end of their stay. Patients were subjected to “treatments” such as “rotating therapy” wherein they were seated in a chair suspended from the ceiling and spun as much as 100 rotations per minute.

Haunting Photos Taken Inside Mental Asylums Of Decades Past

Of course, abuse, neglect, and mistreatment inside mental asylums hardly ended in the middle of the 19th century — on the contrary. While facilities for the mentally ill had now become institutionalized, the late 19th and 20th centuries brought many new problems.

For one, the growth of psychiatry as a discipline meant more diagnoses and thus patients to fit into facilities that were growing ever more overcrowded. Likewise, the growth of psychiatry meant more doctors developing more procedures that seemed increasingly radical throughout the early and mid-20th century, which gave us electroshock therapy and the lobotomy, among others.

Note; the full name of Bedlam Hospital was;

London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, long called Bedlam, is one of the oldest mental institutions in the world. It was founded by Christians in 1247 to shelter and care for homeless people, but gradually began to focus on those considered ‘mad’. Patients did not often stay longer than 12 months.

Yes, this is very true and something I studied while getting a BS in Psychology, but in this case, the study is talking about TBJ to the prefrontal cortex and not a lobotomy. Also, growth/development can be stunted too if one is raised in an extreme Evangelical Fundamentalist home.

I guess by the same token, taking an ice pick and shoving it one’s nose in which to get to the cortex to destroy it, could do the same thing, if they have any emotions at all afterwards. However, if you actually read the study, we aren’t talking about lobotomies.

From the Golden Rule to the Horrors of Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital) and extreme religiosity related to brain damage.


self-certain doctors - insulated by the superiority of their social class.

self-certain preachers - insulated by their conviction they ‘know’ god.


That’s why I believe in a large community of informed, skeptical, competitive scientists looking over each others shoulders - seems to me the best humans can do.

I knew someone that had had a frontal lobotomy. He didn’t seem to be religious, just sort of zombie-fied.

As far as certain types of brain damage eliciting religiosity, I can believe that.

I also heard that people who live in the hottest (temperature wise) zones on the planet, tend to be more politically conservative. So maybe that is something else that represents brain damage (from prolonged heat exposure).

The study didn’t have anything to do with lobotomies or damage from extreme heat (heat stroke).

Abstract Beliefs profoundly affect people's lives, but their cognitive and neural pathways are poorly understood. Although previous research has identified the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as critical to representing religious beliefs, the means by which vmPFC enables religious belief is uncertain. We hypothesized that the vmPFC represents diverse religious beliefs and that a vmPFC lesion would be associated with religious fundamentalism, or the narrowing of religious beliefs. To test this prediction, we assessed religious adherence with a widely-used religious fundamentalism scale in a large sample of 119 patients with penetrating traumatic brain injury (pTBI). 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. Instead, we found that participants with dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) lesions have fundamentalist beliefs similar to patients with vmPFC lesions and that the effect of a dlPFC lesion on fundamentalism was significantly mediated by decreased cognitive flexibility and openness. 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.

This specific subject is outside my scope but I wonder if microtubules may be involved in all diseases of the brain.

Microtubule health is directly causal to mental health, such as Alzheimers, according to Stuart Hameroff, Anesthesiologist.

Preventing Neurodegeneration

In the last couple of years, neuroscientists have started looking at tiny components of neurons called microtubules and their role in both the progression and reversal of neurodegeneration. As Max Stock explains below, EHT is one such substance that maintains healthy neurons and helps to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease.

Microtubule catastrophe: an aging process

The finding that young microtubules are less likely to undergo catastrophe means that microtubules age: catastrophe frequency is not a constant, but rather increases with time. This behavior can be explained by a model in which a microtubule catastrophe event is viewed as a multi-step process that requires several independent random events to occur before the microtubule can switch from a growing to a shrinking state (Box 1). In light of the age- and length-dependence of catastrophe, special care must be taken when characterizing microtubule lifetimes in vivo and in vitro, because sampling different populations of microtubules may lead to a difference in apparent mean lifetime and length.

If not related, please forgive the intrusion and ignore this in relation to the OP

It might, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the frontal cortex. This isn’t talking about neurons firing from one dendrite to another, but rather lesions from TBI on the prefrontal cortex causing religious extremism. By the same token, being raised in an extreme Evangelical Fundamentalist household could stunt the growth of the frontal cortex causing the same behaviours.

Substantial evidence indicates that damage to the PFC can modify individuals’ belief systems (Forbes & Grafman, 2010; Krueger & Grafman, 2012). For instance, patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) lesions rated radical political statements as more moderate than matched controls (Cristofori, Viola, et al., 2015) and focal damage to the vmPFC resulted in greater religious fundamentalism, compared to healthy controls (Asp, Ramchandran, & Tranel, 2012). Thus, although a collection of cortical sectors function together to help shape and formulate beliefs, the PFC may be a critical hub for the representation of the diverse and abstract social beliefs that lie at the core of many religions.
Cognitive flexibility across a broad spectrum of lineages, including humans, evolved for ecological prediction and control. It allows organisms to update beliefs in light of evidence. In humans, cognitive flexibility enables efficient task switching, and is linked with inhibition and working memory (Canas, Quesada, Antoli, & Fajardo, 2003).
Individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI) often suffer impairments in cognitive flexibility as a result of damage to areas controlling executive processes, such as the PFC (Whiting, Deane, Simpson, McLeod, & Ciarrochi, 2015), resulting in task-switching deficits and excessive perseverance in their behavior. In a recent study, Barbey, Colom, and Grafman (2013) found that cognitive flexibility critically relies on the PFC based on a study of individuals with penetrating (p) TBI.
As implied earlier in the introduction, previous research indicates that certain forms of religiosity are associated with a preference for certainty and avoidance of uncertainty (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003). In particular, fundamentalism is associated with the need for cognitive closure (Brandt & Reyna, 2010; Saroglou, 2002), which mediates the relationship between fundamentalism and prejudice towards value-violating outgroups, with close-mindedness and preference for order and predictability accounting for the effect (Brandt & Reyna, 2010). A need for cognitive closure represents the desire for predictability and rigidity instead of openness, and is correlated with conservative, conforming values (Calogero, Bardi, & Sutton, 2009; Kruglanski & Webster, 1996). Recently, a number of studies have found an inverse relationship between analytic thinking and religious disbelief (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Norenzayan, Gervais, & Trzesniewski, 2012; Willard & Norenzayan, 2013). These studies describe analytic thinking as an underminer of religious beliefs which may either suppress default tendencies to form religious beliefs or inhibit culturally acquired concepts. Finally, it has been argued that religious beliefs arise from deficits in perceptual tracking of ecological variation (e.g. Foster & Kokko, 2009; Guthrie, 1993). Collectively, these findings predict that fundamentalism may be related to reduced cognitive flexibility and trait openness, and that these cognitive strategies critically rely on processing in the PFC.
Since fundamentalism entails a firm adherence to a set of beliefs and a desire for cognitive closure, cognitive flexibility and openness present a challenge for fundamentalist thinking. Thus, we hypothesized that lesions to the vmPFC would be associated with increased fundamentalism, and this relationship would be mediated by cognitive flexibility and trait openness. Given the critical role of the dlPFC in modulating openness and cognitive flexibility, we also hypothesized that a dlPFC lesion should indirectly influence fundamentalism, through its effect on cognitive flexibility and openness.

Participants in the study were 119 veterans with pTBI from combat. pTBI = 40 years into recovery or 40 years after the injury. 30 HC (Healthy Controls) who served in combat but did not have any injury. All were Vietnam vets. All had completed the Fundamentalism scale, as well as religious affiliation, which varied to no reply (I assume atheist/agnostic/secular/none) to protestant to Catholic and Mormon.

They had extensive neuropsychological testing over a course of 5 days. Also used was Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT-7A, 1960) for general intelligence both before and after injury, the Token Test (TT; McNeil & Prescott, 1994), for verbal comprehension, and the Religious Fundamentalism Scale (RFS). They also ran a test for cognitive flexibility and a personality inventory. Needless to say, several of these tests most people are not familiar with except maybe the personality inventor. CT scans to look at lesions were also done too and lesions on the prefrontal cortexes were observed, as well as the extent of damage. Lesion refers to the extent of damage to the area. But the RFS is described as follows:

The RFS is a validated, standardized psychometric measure widely used to study religious fundamentalist beliefs. The RFS defined religious fundamentalism as a cognitive construct based on specific religious beliefs: existence of religious teachings containing the fundamental truth about humanity; this fundamental truth is opposed to evil; the fundamental truth must be followed daily, and people that follow this fundamental truth have a special relationship with God. The fundamentalism scale included statements such as: “To lead the best, most meaningful life, one must belong to the one, true religion”; “It is more important to be a good person than to believe in God and the right religion.” Following the methodology employed by (Duckitt, 2001), five con-trait and five pro-trait items were randomly selected from the full 20-item scale (see Sibley, Robertson, & Wilson, 2006). Participants responded to the statements on a 9-point Likert Scale (from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree). A metric indicating degree of fundamentalism was generated by performing a factor analysis on the ten RFS items and calculating a factor score for each participant using the regression method, standardized to a mean of zero and standard deviation of 1. Participants also responded to questions about their religious involvement (Supplementary Methods).

Concerning the lesions and inclusion (PFC = prefrontal cortex and vm or d1 relates to the area of the prefrontal cortex)

A patient was included in the vmPFC group if the percentage of lesion in the vmPFC was larger than the percentage of lesion in the dlPFC. Similarly, a patient was included in the dlPFC group if the percentage of lesion in the dlPFC was larger than the percentage of lesion in the vmPFC(for a similar procedure, see Gozzi, et al., 2009). Patients with large temporal or parietal lesions in addition to PFC damage were excluded from the vmPFC and dlPFC groups. Among the 24 patients with predominantly vmPFC lesions, only 2 had lesions isolated to the vmPFC. Among the 31 patients with predominantly dlPFC lesions, 19 had lesions isolated to the dlPFC. Thus, these numbers were insufficient to perform a subgroup analysis on lesions only affecting either vmPFC or dlPFC.

So they run a number of tests, especially cognitive flexibility etc and came to the conclusion

In HCs, we did not observe a correlation between fundamentalism score and cognitive flexibility (r = -0.07, p = 0.74). There was a negative association between openness and fundamentalism in HC (r = -0.44, p = 0.014), suggesting that higher fundamentalist beliefs are associated with less openness.

In pTBI patients, fundamentalism was negatively correlated with both cognitive flexibility (r = -0.31, p = 0.001) and openness (r = -0.37, p < 0.001), indicating that higher fundamentalist beliefs are associated with diminished cognitive flexibility as well as less openness in brain-injured patients.

Their intelligence didn’t change between pre and post injury. That part was fine, so it didn’t correlate to religiosity in this study. There was no statistical difference between left and right lesion or the location of the lesion(s) on the prefrontal cortex. However, the size of the lesion(s) may have had an effect on cognitive flexibility and openness.

Now, the damage is what I’m getting at concerning extreme fundamental religious beliefs:

4. Discussion The current study tested the hypothesis that functional processing in PFC regions underpin religious conviction by adjusting cognitive flexibility and openness to accommodate diverse religious views. Using a lesion mapping approach in a large sample of patients with pTBI, we found that participants with vmPFC lesions reported greater fundamentalism. When probing for the cognitive mechanisms underlying the effect of neural damage on fundamentalism, we found it was the extent of dlPFC volume loss that indirectly affected fundamentalist beliefs through its effect on cognitive flexibility and openness.
Patients with vmPFC lesions scored higher in fundamentalism than patients without PFC lesions, which is consistent with the pivotal role of the vmPFC in social belief representation and maintenance (Krueger & Grafman, 2012), and with previous lesion studies showing that a vmPFC lesion induces increased fundamentalism (Asp, et al., 2012). Adherence to religious beliefs are highly reinforced and well-rehearsed and can be found across different cultures. Given our research and that of others, it appears likely that diverse religious beliefs are critically represented in the anterior frontal lobe, similar to other forms of complex social knowledge, whereas religious heuristics and simple stereotypic beliefs may be more distributed throughout the posterior frontal and anterior temporal lobes (Forbes & Grafman, 2010). In the context of a PFC lesion, over-learned heuristics can still be preserved and may become more salient (leading to an increase in professed fundamentalist beliefs), while more diverse, complex and deliberated belief representations become less accessible due to vmPFC damage. In addition, patients with lesions to the vmPFC frequently show impairments in social and reward valuation (Mah, Arnold, & Grafman, 2005; Moretti, Dragone, & di Pellegrino, 2009), and this might lead to changes in their social judgments. For example, patients with vmPFC lesions are more prone to judge extreme (and potentially fundamentalist) behaviors as more acceptable (Cristofori, Viola, et al., 2015).

So with the damage, subjects felt religious beliefs were more socially acceptable and adhered to them strongly, without any cognitive flexibility. The beliefs were so ingrained into them that after they suffered TBI, it apparently was what was left to base their actions socially, so they became more extreme and inflexible in their religious thinking.

In summary, we found that adherence to fundamentalist religious doctrine is partly mediated by diminished flexible conceptual thinking and reduced openness and that the key cortical region supporting the representation of diverse religious belief as well as flexible conceptual thinking is the dlPFC.

This study also made note somewhere that religious fundamentalism could stunt the developmental growth of cognitive flexibility too, but I can’t find that now. That’s just a few quotes that may help this conversation along in the discussion of TBI or stunted developmental growth. Either way, both TBI and stunted growth are forms of injury.

Mriana said,

This study also made note somewhere that religious fundamentalism could stunt the developmental growth of cognitive flexibility too, but I can’t find that now. That’s just a few quotes that may help this conversation along in the discussion of TBI or stunted developmental growth. Either way, both TBI and stunted growth are forms of injury.

Meshes nicely with the thread in Religion about Noah’s flood. (317517 and 317551)

Exactly. I can also see how this development affected my mother. She often told me that as a child she’d have nightmares of burning in hell and also didn’t like the light turned on in the middle of the night. To this day, I truly feel her cognitive development was stunted and she never managed to overcome it.

Yes, it’s remarkable how the brain functions. It sits in a dark, wet, silent environment and only “learns” by the secondary information it receives. If this information is about angels and demons, that becomes the abstract world the brain experiences.

A perfect example are optical illusions, such as this:

squares A and B are the exact same shade of gray, but our brains are unable to see that due to its training to see shaded areas as lighter than they are. It’s quite remarkable.

As Anil Seth observes, the brain experiences “controlled hallucinations” which is reinforced by verification of mental images against observational and when those hallucinations come apart, the brain experiences “uncontrolled hallucinations” and “mental disorder”. A well balanced mind is actually a fragile state of “being” and can come apart very easily. Hysteria is another observable symptom.

This is proven by sensory deprivation where the brain begins to imagine all sort of random and often dark (scared) thoughts. In that state demons and ghoulies become the world being experienced and insanity follows.

OTOH, if the brain is fed accurate information about reality and how to deal with natural phenomena, it learns to cope with hardships and within its environment and with empathy toward other the experiences of other minds.

Again a great example is shown in autistic persons :

More in Autism. Empathy is the ability to feel along with others. Sympathy is the ability to feel for others.

People with autism spectrum disorder may appear to be both unempathetic and unsympathetic.

This is the range of emotions the brain experiences. All that activity in a 3 pound lump of neurons (about a trillion microtubules)