Scientists have determined that brain damage, specifically to the frontal lobe, can make people more religious, according to a new study published in Neuropsychologia.
Researchers from Northwestern University, led by neurology expert Jordan Grafman, wanted to understand how people's personalities might change after suffering damage to the brain's frontal lobe—where humans hold and form their core beliefs. According to PsyPost, they decided to study a group of 149 American Vietnam vets—30 who had no history of head trauma, and 119 who had traumatic penetrating brain injuries, like gunshot wounds.
After each of the participants took a popular survey used to weigh religious beliefs, the researchers found that those with injuries to a part of the frontal lobe—known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—were profoundly more religious than others. This, they concluded, was because those participants had damaged the part of the brain that determines how open humans are to understanding different viewpoints.
"The variation in the nature of religious beliefs are governed by specific brain areas in the anterior parts of the human brain," Grafman told PsyPost, "and those brain areas are among the most recently evolved areas of the human brain."
Grafman was quick to point out that although the study was compelling, there were some limitations. For starters, all the participants were male and American, and many of the participants with brain injuries had likely suffered a traumatic, near-death experience. Their upbringing and social background wasn't factored into the experiment, either. To investigate how broad this phenomenon might reach, researchers could study both women and men who represent various religions to get a better idea of how this kind of injury might affect different personalities.
"Beliefs have sculpted our behaviors for thousands of years and helped shape the development and sophistication of our brains," Grafman said. "Such beliefs systems are dependent upon other aspects of our cognitive and social processes and those interactions would be important to understand."