Your pal with extreme views might have brain damage

By Suresh Pattali

A girlfriend of mine was quite fond of a particular expression and she would hurl different versions of it whenever she was in an unhealthy disagreement with me.

“You need your head examined.”

“Get your head checked.”

“When was the last time you got your head scanned?”

She blurted them out with such frequency that I came to believe there’s something really wrong with my head.

During a recent visit to a clinic in Sharjah, a doctor, seemingly well beyond the age of 70, thrust a lab report under my nose and told me something profound, something outside the purview of modern medicine: “You have a blood infection. That’s OK. Treatable. But what’s more important is if you are ready for life beyond this. The real test comes there.”

Since I am a notoriously good listener, and I did not want to hurt an old man who happens to be my physician, I tried to humour him: “Let me first treat all the ills of the present life. Sir, I haven’t finished my business on this planet to think about the afterlife.”

He looked like a saint, with droopy eyelids and a flowing white beard signifying his preparation for the ether world. He seemed adamant on sending me on a heavenly trip. Kneading his beard, the doctor reeled out his arguments: “What have I achieved as a physician, apart from being burdened with the trauma of living this temporal life? Nothing, except some loans. So prepare yourself before it’s too late.”

“Prepare for what?”

“A spiritual journey,” he said, as he handed me a prescription that seemed like a one-way ticket to spirituality.

Walking out of the clinic, I wondered if I was old enough to think about death. I was listless as I pondered over what my girlfriend used to tell me, “You need your head examined.”

What sparked such thoughts in my head was a report which I read recently. Religious fundamentalism is a result of a functional impairment in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, says the study published in the journal Neuropsychologia. According to the findings, damage to particular areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness, which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.

Life is full of instances that make me believe the study holds water. Though my uncle died an atheist without a single temple visit to his record, my father had grown pious in his old age. A lone A4 size photo of a down-to-earth (read not handsome) Lord Krishna, visualised au milieu de la jungle, decorated one of the walls in his room. I had never seen him paying obeisance or prostrating in front of the image. I presume he was too shy to reveal his personality shift which has baffled me until today.

There are friends — past and present — who have grayed gracefully with me, but have slid into a world hitherto unknown to them. I have witnessed their awkward physical and mental metamorphosis into devoutly religious persons. They tout their beliefs at every social gathering. Their posts and shares on social media startle me as their arguments border on radical thoughts. They are venomous and intimidating.

I have seen pensioners choosing pilgrimage towns to settle down and spend the rest of their lives there. Religious hymns ring out at their homes round the clock. Conversations during friendly visits veer towards religion and end up in acrimonious debates. They sound like fundamentalists.

Religious fundamentalism refers to an ideology that discourages progressive thinking about religion and social issues. “Fundamentalist groups generally oppose anything that questions or challenges their beliefs or way of life. For this reason, they are often aggressive towards anyone who does not share their specific set of supernatural beliefs, and towards science, as these things are seen as existential threats to their entire worldview,” says a Raw Story report about the research.

In the late 1960s during the Vietnam War, neurologist William Caveness developed a registry of approximately 2,000 soldiers who had experienced head trauma during the conflict. Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University based in Illinois, US, and his team of researchers made use of the registry and examined 119 Vietnam veterans with penetrating traumatic brain injury and 30 of them with no history of lesions. They found veterans with injury to the part of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex reported higher levels of religious fundamentalism compared to those without the lesions. The study found damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex reduced cognitive flexibility — meaning the ability to update our beliefs in light of new evidence — along with lowering the personality trait of openness.

Scientists say these findings are important because they suggest that impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex — whether from brain trauma, a psychological disorder, a drug or alcohol addiction, or simply a particular genetic profile — can make an individual susceptible to religious fundamentalism. And perhaps in other cases, extreme religious indoctrination harms the development or proper functioning of the prefrontal regions in a way that hinders cognitive flexibility and openness.

This is where my suspicion about the links between old age and religious beliefs strengthens. Isn’t it possible that degeneration of neurological cells due to old age can damage ventromedial prefrontal cortex, triggering religious fundamentalism?

The scientists do not suggest that people who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs are brain-damaged individuals. There are other reasons why someone may hold fundamentalist views, especially if they were raised in a community of such believers. “Beliefs have sculpted our behaviours for thousands of years and helped shape the development and sophistication of our brains,” explains Grafman.

“Such beliefs systems are dependent upon other aspects of our cognitive and social processes and those interactions would be important to understand.  For example, how does openness in your personality affect how you form and act upon your beliefs?  What about genetic predisposition and its effect upon belief systems?” asks Grafman.

The researchers feel that the existence of brain lesions in their study could account for a 20 per cent likelihood that such a person would hold fundamentalist beliefs. Maybe some of my old friends who openly flaunt their militant beliefs on social media and in public are included in the 20 per cent.

Arguably, seeking penance and blessings in one’s sunset days and courting radical beliefs cannot go hand in hand. I sincerely hope and believe that all my ‘fundamentalist’ friends have lesions in the prefrontal cortex. At least I can forgive them on medical grounds.

Suresh is senior editor. He believes procastination ruins lives

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