My recent mention of “Can fundamentalists be creative?” had readers scurrying to the Psychology Today article. When neurologist Ken Heilman and technologist Russ Donda’s observations were first made public in 2007, there was, of course, a great howl from all kinds of religious folks. The howling goes on. In my case, I’m one of those guys who thinks creativity is an equal opportunity situation, and I try to evangelize all comers.
The authors of the study defined creativity as the ability to question and conceive things beyond the status quo and diverge from the familiar. They defined fundamentalism as any doctrinal belief system not generally open to scrutiny and likely to be intolerant of other similar systems. In most cases, personal interpretations tend to be marginalized. Heilman and Donda found fundamentalists to be “poorer in possibilities,” and less able to see the value of play.
Among their sources, Heilman and Donda referred to an Israeli study where students in secular schools had significantly higher scores in divergent reasoning than students in religious schools.
It seems fundamentalists avoid the psychological pain brought about by examining the outside world and tend not to allow themselves bouts of divergent reasoning.
It’s almost like there are two main kinds of people — those who are curious, challenging, inventive and creative, and those who rely on some sort of dogma to make sense of their world. Studies show that creative thinking takes place at the front of the cortex, while further back the brain seems to be more submissive and gullible. To its credit, this back area also features more stable and defensive thinking, and may represent a hangover from primitive times when fear was more in your face.
One of the more controversial findings of these studies is that religious fundamentalism may permanently damage the growth of a child’s brain. The thinking goes like this: People with physical damage to their frontal cortex from an accident or medical issues tend to perform poorly in creative thinking. The underutilization of this area, particularly in early life, seems also to impede its proper development and stunt the growth of creativity. In short, fundamentalists may have trouble thinking outside the box.
PS: “Based on what we know about brain growth, it is possible that a child taught only to follow, and not to personally wonder about or question doctrine, will suffer from an abnormal development of the frontal lobes.” (Ken Heilman)
Esoterica: One of the tests typically used to determine creativity in young people is to ask them to give alternate uses for common kitchen utensils. The fork, for example, is obviously an instrument for impaling food and bringing it to the mouth. Creative children are likely to suggest its use as a catapult to flick peas, a lever for lifting objects, a small plucked instrument, a tool for scribing parallel grooves in clay or Plasticine, or many other applications. According to these studies, children brought up in rigid religious environments are less likely to use forks to flick peas.
More primitive form of intelligence
by Russell Donda
I am grateful for this post referencing the article I co-authored with Kenneth Heilman. The gist revolves around the ability to reason divergently: the ability to break free from one’s current beliefs and behaviors. This ability to break free is the start of the creative process. People who have adherence disorders often have frontal lobe insufficiency, whether through accident or disease.
Our hypothesis is that people who unconditionally adhere to doctrine (religious or otherwise), may not be employing as much of their frontal lobes as someone engaged in a creative act. When thinking of “unconditional” consider the example of evolution: despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, there remains a rigid adherence to literal scripture in some people. Additionally, we know that the frontal lobes are the most phylogenetically evolved part of the brain, thus we believe the ability to break from old behaviors and to act in a new way is the most evolved form of intelligence — conversely, unconditional adherence to beliefs, including some religious fundamentalist dogma, may represent a more primitive form of intelligence.
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The divinity of creativity
by Ray Miller, Oceanside, CA, USA
Perhaps the creative function of the brain should be considered divine rather than the “soul.” In most religions the deity was the creator. To be godlike, we should be creative. Creativity can be the way we live our lives, raise our families, and the way we play. Fundamentalism in religion is based on premises that are considered immutable, like the laws of science. But science is capable of change. Children indoctrinated with a frozen, static view of life are probably not as creative and inventive as those who are free to reassess the world around them every day.
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Lessons from the generations
by Deborah Tidwell Holtzscheiter, Aiken, SC, USA
Now I know where my creative issues come from — I wasn’t allowed to flick peas as a child! LOL — I can see where a rigid environment could affect one’s ability to think outside of the box. I think about this with my own child in allowing him to explore and express himself in ways that I was not allowed. It means that we have more mess with his scraps of paper and markers, etc. lying about. But boundaries do give a sense of security (and better behaved children)! I think there has to be a balance… room to be curious but then we need to clean up that room when we are finished!
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The limitations of ‘limited’
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
Whenever I hear the word ‘fundamentalism’ I associate it with the word ‘limited.’ This is a generalization, of course, but my experience shows that whenever I think I have ‘the answer’ I tend not to investigate or question or seek. Thinking that you know (or for the artist, thinking that you see well enough) is kind of like falling asleep. And if one starts on this non-investigative process at an early age, the mind (the eye) tends to harden, and it begins to work (see) within a narrower range of possibilities.
The box on which we stand
by Rev. Jeremy McLeod, Manassas, VA, USA
Among other things I’m a church musician (choral composer/arranger) and social justice activist. Both aspects of my career were set in motion while I was being raised up in a very conservative branch of Christianity. While I’ve moved far to the left on most theological/spiritual scales (now a pastor in a very liberal denomination), the creativity nurtured in those earlier years remains a daily part of my life.
My sense of this is that we all have some part of our lives that goes unquestioned and serves as a foundation upon which to be creative. While “fundamentalism” can result in people who resemble windup toys, I’ve also seen conservative religion spark remarkable creativity. When things like scripture and doctrine are settled matters, the creation of arts for worship or programs for ministries of service are often amazingly creative.
Sometimes (not always, granted), it’s the very box that contains us that in turn becomes the step-stool upon which to stand to see differently and thus create.
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The transgressions of both religion and creativity
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
“Yes indeed! A can of worms, given that of all restrictive practices, religion in its various guises is and has been responsible for more than its fair share of all the wickedness on this planet — but caused by reduction in brain capacity? Well, that could be an explanation. Another word for it could be indoctrination, functionally the blocking out of anything that doesn’t fit into the respective scheme of things. Thinking (where still possible) inside or outside of a (religious) box can be dangerous, as events through the ages have shown.
The problem is that there have always been the strong and the weak in every society, and the strong have traditionally subjugated the weak by whatever means available to them. “God” or gods would seem to be ideally suited since historically one can’t argue with them (or their self-appointed representatives?). Creativity, on the other hand, can make mischief, disorder a well-ordered household and destroy the illusions and delusions of power.
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Do fundamentalists deny the gift?
by Terry Janovick, Ladysmith, BC, Canada
I believe that lack of creative stimulation and freedom of expression in your early years of life, does desensitize a person from being aware of the awesomeness of life IN and around them. Though a soul that longs for and knows that there is more will find it… especially in creative expression or because of their fears, will lose contact with the very essence of life, a sensitivity to life. As you mentioned “creativity is an equal opportunity…” I believe creativity is as varied as people are and everyone can learn but it is a ‘talent’ to be able to capture a powerful image or/and feeling, 2D, 3D, music, books or drama. I believe real art in whatever shape or form ‘rings true’ and effectively communicates to the receiver what the creator was trying to say. An artistic fundamentalist could also capture how they see life but may not recognize the value of art and therefore deny the ‘gift.’ So I guess I’m saying yes a ‘fundamentalist’ can be creative… but will they…?
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Can passion explore in a closed system?
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
The often abused term “begging the question” applies here. It means circular reasoning. You present as proof that very thing you’re trying to prove. There’s a bumper sticker out there: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Ask for proof that God said it, and you’ll be referred to the same scripture that the sticker-bearer practices. Indeed, for the fundamentalist, that settles it. There was a time when the argument might have proven fatal.
Scientific, or empirical thinking, is a different animal. It posits a possible fact, then tries responsibly to either prove or disprove it. Either result is considered progress, since it either supports a hypothesis or destroys a worthless one. Only when sufficient proof has been gathered is something declared a fact. To this day, we refer to evolution as a “theory,” although that word means something different in scientific usage than in popular.
There is a difference between fact and opinion. Surely we know that either can be a stimulus for great art. So I’m not sure I can get behind the postulate that fundamentalist thinking somehow interferes with creativity. Grunewald, Giotto, and the painters of the Renaissance argue for the contrary, and show that passion can explode, even within a closed intellectual system. This holds true for Navajo sand painting, Kwakiutl totems and Indian raga as well. Formalism can find expression when the heart is unleashed, although it may take more of a classical than a romantic form. However, it may well be that the *thought* process of a freer mind is more conducive to the growth of new styles and expressions of art. Whether one’s conclusions come before the fact or after the fact, it remains true that creativity is part of the human experience, so keep on evangelizing, Robert.
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The fear of freedom
by James Bright, Ottawa, ON, Canada
It should even, and probably does, apply to that narrow range of art expression of popular area of art activity of the “return to classical style of painting and painting like the masters.” Unfortunately… what is not always known is that many of them painted within strict constraints of acceptability and current dogma of the art societies. Maybe that is what the people want… but given the totally limitless potential of a paint brush, some colour and a surface of some kind… the artist has truly only one place to go… and that is how they see the world. Why so many feel constrained to stay within the lines and never paint on the walls is beyond me.
It took me a long time to get out of that head space and thinking that is where to go. Mind you the current art schools have their work cut out for them… with resistance of a student’s mind and lack of confidence… well it is a big job to open them up to this very fact that once you have the materials… where you go is up to you… and that HUGE amount of freedom is terribly frightening for many… as it was for me.
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Reaping the rewards of fundamentalism
by Jeanne Larson, Lake Elmo, MN, USA
Having had the good fortune to grow up in a ‘fundamentalist’ home, I constantly reap the rewards of what some may call that insular lifestyle. For example, the hours that many young people spend staring into the abyss of television, we spent spread out on the living room floor with scissors, paste, the Montgomery Ward Catalogue and a large box of crayons creating the worlds that inhabited our imaginations. We attended church 3 times a week, but our family was a family of dreamers and spent many hours exploring the adventures of the mind and experiencing all the possibilities that a creative life holds. I don’t see our family as unique within the fundamentalist world we inhabit. Believe me when I tell you that a good number of the people I’ve met set the “pea flicking” standard pretty high.
In addition, the emphasis placed on personal responsibility and discipline has only been a benefit in the pursuit of my own personal artistic ambitions. This is not to say that an unquestioning approach to life was ever a possibility. I always understood that inherent in the foundation of our belief system was an open door for exploration, questioning and an adventurous imagination. It’s my belief that a child born with an artistic curiosity and ability to question will question in whatever climate they land.
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Fundamentally a spiritual journey
by Mike Jorden, Osoyoos, BC, Canada
Your letter coincided with my rereading of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. His assertion that the ultimate and most prevalent sin is that of laziness — particularly the laziness to confront our prejudices and preconceptions — parallels the findings of the study you cite. Underneath rigidly held beliefs is the fear of the effort and pain required to examine them and possibly change them and hence our view of reality. The effort required to do this is an aspect of love — possibly the most important aspect. I believe the art journey is fundamentally a spiritual journey and overcoming our reluctance to dig deeper into our subject to uncover what attracted us to it in the first place, to overcome our rote ways of doing things, even to get back into the studio after a prolonged absence — all these efforts mirror the effort required to grow and deepen spiritually. I agree with your contributors who say that when the spirit is unwilling, it is even more essential to show up regularly at the studio if only to go through the motions of the endeavor. No one said the full and examined life was an easy life, only that it is worth the effort.
The theologian Karen Armstrong in The Spiral Staircase asserts that absolute and unwavering certainty is evidence of profound evil — if only because if you differ in your beliefs you are automatically wrong. Intolerance in others — and ourselves — would be only mildly annoying were it not for the fact that such people occasionally get into positions that allow them to pass legislation, alter curricula, ban books, invade countries or otherwise impose their beliefs on others. Sometimes they ban art! I believe a healthy skepticism and an enquiring, creative intellect are essential tools for encountering life and spirituality as well as art. I also believe there is ultimate truth and absolute reality somewhere and it is worth seeking but for the most part our knowledge of it will be relative and proximate, as is our science, as is our art. So let us go forward and live our creativity in any way we can. And beware of gurus!
By The Bay
oil painting by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Dale Kirschenman of AB, Canada, who wrote, “Time Magazine recently featured a special article titled ‘The God Gene’ which examined recent studies regarding human genetic predisposition to believe or not believe in God or religious dogma. There appears to be significant data that shows humans are in fact ‘hardwired’ to either be potential ‘believers’ or potential ‘non-believers.’ ”
And also Sala Chapman of Myrtle Beach, SC, USA, who wrote, “This information forms the basis of how our children are taught in schools. (I am a teacher.) Children in schools are taught to conform. They are taught fake US History that tells them America is the best and makes no mistakes and the ‘Government’ is not to be doubted. It limits divergent and creative thinking. It is why our country has gotten into the sad situation it is in now. For many generations people have been trained to be sheep and not question.”
And also Nev Sagiba of Katoomba, Australia, who wrote, “I’m all for flicking peas. Early lessons in physics instead of superstition.”
And also Donna Clark of North Hampton, OH, USA, who wrote, “I am a Fundamentalist Christian, but I DO flick peas!!!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Creativity and Fundamentalism…