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How a brain injury can cause religious fanaticism

How a brain injury can cause religious fanaticism

July 27, 2022

Each one of us has a way of seeing the world, our own system of values ​​and beliefs that make us observe, analyze and judge reality in a certain way. Within these value systems a high proportion of the population includes beliefs of a spiritual and religious nature , in many cases acquired and assimilated through culture and education. And in some cases these beliefs and their reinforcement throughout life can give rise to inflexible interpretations about how the world is or should be.

Also, this lack of cognitive flexibility is not always the product of learning, but there are injuries and alterations in different parts of the brain that can make it difficult or even lose enough cognitive flexibility to accept other possible interpretations of reality, so that only one's own beliefs are acceptable. We are talking about how a brain injury can cause religious fanaticism .


  • Related article: "Types of religion (and their differences of beliefs and ideas)"

Religious beliefs and fanaticism

Religious beliefs are understood as a set of ideas considered as true by the people who profess them and that usually include references to a specific way of seeing and interpreting existence and reality.

Together with other types of values ​​and beliefs are part of the value system from which we organize our action and existence in the world . They are a specific way of making sense of reality based on experience or information that has been transmitted by society and culture. In themselves they are neither positive nor negative, but a part of the idiosyncrasy of each person. And under normal conditions they are not necessarily excluding other forms of interpretation either.


But nevertheless, sometimes people limit their perspective of reality to one or a specific group of beliefs, rejecting the possibility of the existence of other alternatives and considering one's own as the only valid one.

If the defense of this belief system becomes vehement and passionate to the point of becoming irrational , tries to impose on others such beliefs and rule out the possibility of criticizing them or the feasibility of other alternatives can be considered that we are in the presence of fanaticism. One of the main aspects that differentiates fanaticism from belief (whether religious or not) is the loss of cognitive flexibility and openness to new perspectives.

Cognitive flexibility

One of the main and most important executive functions, cognitive flexibility is that capacity that allows the human being to be able to modify their cognitions and behaviors from new information coming from abroad or processing and elaboration due to reasoning.


This capacity allows us to be able to face changes in the natural and social environment and makes us capable of surviving, generating new strategies and adopting new approaches. It serves to reorganize our mental structure and our value systems and beliefs according to the existing information. It also allows us to learn from experience and link with reality.

The absence or diminished presence of this capacity provokes, on the contrary, that we are worse prepared to face alterations in the environment and assume the arrival of novelties alien to the already known. Behavior and thinking become rigid and persevering, and often difficult survival and adaptation.

Data extracted from the investigation: effects of prefrontal injuries

Different investigations have reported that part of the brain areas linked to our belief systems are linked to one of the most relevant brain regions for the performance and social functioning of the human being: the frontal cortex.

Specifically, a link has been detected between the ability to reorganize our cognition and beliefs from experience and accept new possibilities and the ventromedial prefrontal area. This area helps regulate emotional perception and expression and has a strong implication in the management of motivation, response to the environment and human creativity.

Injuries in this area have manifested to diminish the creative capacity and the imagination of the human being, in addition to his mental flexibility and the possibility of visualizing and understanding new perspectives. Openness to experience, one of the main personality traits, is also greatly reduced.

However, we must bear in mind that the data have been extracted from the analysis of a sample limited to different veterans of the Vietnam War with or without brain injuries, which implies that it is mostly American males with a certain age and some cultural characteristics and some concrete experiences and beliefs.In this way, the results can hardly be generalized to other cultures, religions or subjects with other characteristics.

Implications of these investigations

It is important to bear in mind that the data reflected by these investigations refer to the presence of fanaticism and the relationship between it and the loss of mental flexibility derived from brain injuries. It is not about attacking religious beliefs , which are still a way of trying to organize and explain the world, something that is not the intention of this article or the investigations of which it is part.

Nor should we consider that all people who have a high level of religious fanaticism suffer from brain injuries or problems in the prefrontal, there is a great environmental and educational influence in the emergence and development of the ability to see and accept new perspectives or the difficulty to do so.

What these investigations do reflect is that certain brain injuries can cause the loss of cognitive flexibility that can lead to fanaticism. And not only the religious, but also linked to other types of stimulation or beliefs .

This research could help to locate which brain areas are linked to beliefs and mental openness and help to establish strategies and mechanisms from which to deal with the presence of mental rigidity disorders and other alterations resulting from injuries. and diseases.

Bibliographic references:

  • Zhong, W .; Cristofori, I .; Bulbulia, J .; Krueger F. & Grafman, J. (2017). Biological and cognitive underpinnings of religious fundamentalism. Neuropsychology., 100. 18-25.
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