Fundamentalism Brain Changes and Abuse

It is an established socio-psychological principle that the culture a child is reared in has an impact on how they perceive the world. There is evidence that culture impacts play, social engagement and emotional understanding. It stands to reason that childhood experiences may also have an impact on brain development. A recent line of research supports that notion.

A study documented in the journal Neuropsychologia reported that individuals who have a strong belief in religious fundamentalism tend to have brain damage linked deformities. These abnormalities appear to occur in a region of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). While the initial study was performed on individuals who suffered a documented traumatic brain injury other more recent studies have found similar results in larger samples of people. These studies provide insight into portions of the brain involved in processing emotions, questioning, and cognitive flexibility. If these correlational studies are borne out the link between damage and fundamentalism is a finding with interesting implications.

All people have a belief system. Even atheists and agnostics have strong beliefs. Their beliefs revolve around skepticism of the existence of a higher power and nonexistence of god. Religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, tend to reject progressive thoughts or doubts about what they believe. Somewhat paradoxically the current state of the research indicates that those who question have more intact vmPFC areas than fundamentalists even though they also have beliefs.

There is more that science has revealed about this area of the brain. Brain function researchers have found that the vmPFC, in addition to mediating beliefs, is linked with the processing of ones’ sense of self. People with damage to the vmPFC tend to make bad decisions, they show poor judgement and are often socially detached. The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), where the vmPFC resides, if damaged, is also linked to violence. Most importantly, this region of the brain is highly integrated with the limbic system, that system of structures in the brain that include the amygdala and hippocampus which are the structures that mediate emotions and memories.

In a type of scientific overreach, one could assume that these findings suggest that religious fundamentalists have damage that causes them to be rigid in their beliefs, not allowing inquiry and causes them to react emotionally and violently when confronted about their religious convictions. But correlation is not causation – the findings provide an interesting line of speculation, hypotheses and research not definitive statements of how the brain operates. Additional work is indicated.

We do know that individuals who were abused, especially in childhood, do have damage to the PFC areas and both the amygdala and hippocampus, the areas that are most interconnected with the PFC. In these abused individuals it is presumed that the harm they suffered likely caused the structural changes in the brain. The vmPFC is damaged, the amygdala enlarged, and the size of the hypothalamus decreases in cases where there has been abuse. We also have a good idea as to how these physical changes impact behavior and feelings. Not surprisingly individuals with a history of abuse suffer from a variety of self-perception conflicts and confusion, have difficulty trusting relationships can have rigid views of their world and may have constrained social relationships. What we do not know is if being raised in a highly rigid religious fundamentalist home or community causes similar damage, if there are genetic predispositions that cause it or if there was some sort of childhood trauma that is the culprit for vmPFC changes.

To imply that being raised in a religious environment causes brain damage is to suggest that religious fundamentalist beliefs are abusive. Not too many are willing to take that bold and specious a step. Genetic predispositions might explain the damage because of generations of inbreeding of fundamental rigidity. This too would require straining the findings to fit a position that is not supported by the relational nature of the findings. Unless, of course, there is solid scientific evidence.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the 18th century biologist who preceded Darwin suggested that genetic changes can be obtained in part through parental behaviors. While his ideas were shunned it turns out that there is some validity to his theory. Neuroplasticity or epigenetics, the ability of the brain to reorganize itself based on experience and environment or the modification of gene expression without changing genetic coding seems to be borne out, just as Lamarck suggested. What that means is that what you or your biological forbearers have been exposed to can have a significant impact on how your brain develops. Thus, if someone were exposed to a trauma such as abuse, we could, in many cases, anticipate finding actual physical changes in their vmPFC, amygdala and hippocampus. Those changes could likely have an impact on how they process the world around them. Being raised in a fundamentalist environment may have an impact on physical brain structures and how one might process their world. Is it traumatic to be raised in a fundamentalist home? This research is still in its infancy. A tangential line of questioning would include a look at the possibility that abuse is more common in extremely rigid fundamentalist homes.

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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