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.
This letter was originally published as “Creativity and Fundamentalism” on April 2, 2010.
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