Creativity and Fundamentalism
Robert Genn

April 2, 2010

Dear Rodney,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. 

Best regards,


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." 

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.