By Shayla Love
Neuroscientists have long been curious about the neural basis of faith.
Between 1967 and 1970, neurologist and Korean War veteran William Caveness started an unusual collection. He gathered information on roughly 2,000 Vietnam War soldiers who suffered traumatic brain injuries during combat, recognizing that their tragic accidents could serve another purpose—studying the long-term effects of such injuries on the brain.
As a dataset, the soldiers were unique. They had undergone neurophysical and intelligence testing before enlisting, offering the rare opportunity to compare cognitive ability before and after injury. The Vietnam war was the first widespread use of helicopter evacuations, and the soldiers were treated quickly by nearby neurosurgical teams. This meant they actually survived their injuries, unlike many in past military conflicts. Due to lower-velocity shrapnel wounds, the parts of their brains that were damaged were hyper-localized. These conditions created a group of diverse and stable men, with very specific brain lesions, all willing to be studied.
Jordan Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, called them “the gift that keeps on giving.” He’s been working with the data from the Vietnam Head Injury Study for years, publishing papers on the neural basis of problem solving, the connection between aggression and brain damage, caregiver behavior and mental decline, and other topics in the slippery realm of neuropsychology.
In April of this year, Grafman and his co-authors published the latest of their work that attempts to use the vets’ brain lesions to explain an even more abstract phenomenon: mystical and religious experiences, and religious fundamentalism.