Field of Science

Different parts of the brain linked to religious practice, spirituality, and fundamentalism

One time-honoured way to try to work out the function of different parts of the brain is to study people with brain damage. If damage in a particular area is consistently associated with a particular psychological change, well then there probably is some kind of mechanistic link.

There's been a couple of recent studies that have shed some of this particular light onto our religious drives.

First, some background. In 2008 Brick Johnstone, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, found that patients with damage to their right parietal lobe (the bit on the side of your head above your ear) tend to report being more spiritual than patients with damage in other areas. In a new study, he's looked at another series of 20 patients with traumatic brain injury in different parts of their brain.

In their follow-up study Johnstone and colleagues found that, as before, patients with damage to their right parietal lobe (as measured by their ability to judge the orientation of lines and ability to identify the fingers on their left hand) were more spiritual. In particular, they tended to score higher on measures of forgiveness (so they were less 'self-oriented') as well on measures of spiritual transcendence (tending to agree with statements like "I feel the presence of a higher power").

In contrast, patients with damage to their frontal lobe (measured using a kind of 'connect the letters and numbers' puzzle) tended to be less likely to engage in private religious practices and go to church. There was also some evidence that they tended to be less spiritual.

Johnstone et al suspect that the link between the right parietal lobe and spirituality comes about because damage to this part of the brain makes it harder to locate yourself in 3D space. So there is a tendency to feel that you are somehow merged or blurred in with your environment - hence the sensations of spiritual transcendence.

They don't speculate on the link between better frontal lobe function and religious activities per se (focussing instead on the spirituality link) but I find this result intriguing. The frontal lobe is involved in classic 'figuring stuff out' actions, as well as social functioning. So it seems likely that good frontal lobe function could be important to this aspect of religiosity.

The other new study was by Erik Asp and colleagues at the University of Iowa.

They studied ten patients with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), 10 patients with damage to areas outside the vmPFC, and 16 patients without brain damage but who had experienced life-threatening medical events.

The patients with damage to the vmPFC  also were more likely to have authoritarian and religious fundamentalist beliefs than patients without damage to this area.

According to Asp and colleagues, the prefrontal
cortex "is critical in mediating doubt, and thus damage to the
prefrontal cortex should result in a "doubt deficit'". This could be because such patients struggle to tag new religious notions as false, or because their memorised religious doubts were erased by their injury (or perhaps a combination of the two).

Whatever the explanation, they are careful to point out that this doesn't mean that fundamentalists are brain damaged! Rather, this illustrates the kinds of psychology  that could link to fundamentalist beliefs.

From my perspective, I think it's nice to contrast this result with those of the Johnstone study. Together they nicely demonstrate that not only is there no such thing as a 'god spot' in the brain, but that what we call 'religion' is in fact a mix of different psychological traits - and ones that are not necessarily linked.
Brick Johnstone, Angela Bodling, Dan Cohenb, Shawn E. Christ, & Andrew Wegrzyn (2012). Right Parietal Lobe-Related “Selflessness” as the Neuropsychological Basis of Spiritual Transcendence International Journal for the Psychology of Religion : 10.1080/10508619.2012.657524

Erik Asp, Kanchna Ramchandran, & Daniel Tranel (2012). Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Human Prefrontal Cortex Neuropsychology, 26 (4), 414-421 DOI: 10.1037/a0028526

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Sincerely I doubt that any part of the brain can be linked to fundamentalism.



  2. "...what we call 'religion' is in fact a confection of different psychological trait - and ones that are not necessarily linked."

    I agree that's both an implication of these studies and quite significant. I recall a number of other studies support that conclusion too.

    It's my impression, though, that most folks still see religion as mainly originating in an attempt to explain things, or in an attempt to find meaning in the world. The notion that it might originate in psychological traits doesn't seem to me to have caught on that much. At least, not yet.

  3. @ Mauro: I'm curious why you do not believe any part of the brain can be linked to fundamentalism. Care to elaborate? I'm not interested in a debate. Just in your views.

  4. @Paul; well the desire to explain things is, arguably, one psychological trait that has helped to shape religion. But there are many others.

  5. We are also clear that these brain areas clearly correspond to important religious activities: We the cerebellum is involved in genuflecting, the amygdala for motivation to overturn tables in the temple, and the occipital lobe for experiencing pareidolia.

    Sorry, had to through in something light. Great post -- thanx

  6. Clearly many parts of the brain may contribute to it, and ultimately each believer develops or literally "con-ceives" an image or "con-cept" of a "god" or of several divine beings, based on cultural models acquired from various verbal and behavioral sources through childhood, which concept is then located in some "file" of the cortex along with the thousands of other concepts. Because of individual as well as cultural differences difference it has been found impossible to give a definition of "god" that can cover all usages of the word or its equivalent words in other languages.
    Although the concept tends to resist any changes, it may be modified or even erased when an individual is exposed to other notions, such as e.g. a trinitarian Catholic converting to a unitarian Jehovah's Witness, or a believer converting to agnostic or atheistic secular Humanism.

  7. Religion is "caught" by verbal education and socialization. Any part of the brain that is necessary for these functions is likely to result in lack of religious belief. This explains why atheism is very prevalent in children with Aspergers Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders that cause difficulties with socialization.
    Language and verbal rationalization is (usually) processed by the left hemisphere. On the other hand, the right hemisphere is responsible for matching present environment and ideas(as a global thing) with memories of previous environments of ideas. If this checking process is impaired there is no break on the tendency of the left hemisphere to make up stories to account for whatever the person is experiencing or thinking. Victims lose their critical ability while retaining their ability to rationalize.


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