Insights from Neuroscience and Brain Research.

UNDERSTANDING BELIEFS

I have always been fascinated by various facets of human behavior. Neuroscience and Brain Research have started providing great insights into the rationale behind some arguably perplexing aspects of human behaviour and we are now able to explain “why people behave the way they do? “

The subject of Neuroscience, of course, is very vast and is incredibly interesting which is the reason why it has attracted more than ten thousand researchers in the US alone.

My desire is to discuss these fascinating findings, especially related to human behaviour, through this NeuroInsights blog.

I welcome your comments as well as other perspectives.

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Let me take up the subject of beliefs first because we see the world through our belief filters, which is the reason why different people see the world differently. We need to appreciate that irrespective of how various beliefs come to take root in us, we nevertheless live our lives as if all our beliefs are real facts, even though many of them are not.

More importantly, we also lack the requisite ability to change our beliefs even when we are confronted with plenty of evidence that questions the very foundations of our beliefs. This is simply because our beliefs are amazingly resilient, since they get neurologically connected and become part of our memory and emotional infrastructure. Further, as these beliefs get practiced repeatedly over a long period of time, they become our entrenched behaviors at which point of time, they become very difficult, if not impossible to change.

Let us first examine what we mean by beliefs. Belief is some-thing that one accepts with a strong conviction as true and real. It could also be a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or even a conviction that something is either good or bad, is right or wrong or is valuable or useless.

BELIEFS ARE MAINLY ACQUIRED THROUGH A COLLECTION OF INTERPRETATIONS AND FEELINGS BASED ON OUR PAINFUL OR PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES OF THE PAST.

As a simple example, we know that fire can hurt because we have had experience that touching fire is painful. The more complex example is our belief that it pays to adjust and toe the line of powerful people rather than confront them. This belief may be the result of childhood experiences in dealing with powerful members in our family.

There is a widespread acknowledgement that the coping behaviors learned in childhood have great strength and persistence and can be changed only with considerable effort. What is stored in this firmware is the sub-conscious cataloging of strategies that did or did not work while we tried to cope with our environment during our childhood. These beliefs are so strongly embedded in us that they become our subconscious behavior-controlling programming.

Image Source: Courtesy (L) Jigar Patel Brain www.bu.edu (R) www.thisiscolossal.com

What is surprising is that we are not-at-all conscious of how and when we acquired at least some of our beliefs. One reason given for this is that although most of our important social and emotional lessons occur during our early years, we have little or no conscious memory of learning them. This phenomenon, referred to as “Infantile Amnesia”, is due to the immaturity, during childhood, of hippocampal cortical networks, whose functioning is required and essential for the conscious recollection of the learning process. Despite our lack of explicit memory for these experiences, they nevertheless come to form the infrastructure of our lives. We unconsciously interpret these early lessons as the ‘givens’ of life, rarely noticing that they are powerfully influencing and guiding our moment-to-moment experiences.

Beliefs could also be the result of Cultural Cognition, which is the theory that posits that we shape our opinions and form our beliefs in order to conform to the views of the groups with which we most strongly identify. In our desire to feel safe, we bond together with all those who are more like us so that we can protect ourselves from those who might do us harm.

Michael Shermer, a well-known science writer, postulated the concept of Belief-Dependent-Realism.

He says, that we form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons due to the influence of family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. Once we form our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first and explanations for such beliefs then follow. In his book “The Believing Brain”, he calls this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about them, as belief-dependent realism.

Image Source: Courtesy (L) www.evolveconsciousness.org (R) www.chronicle.com

We need to appreciate that reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of that reality depends on the beliefs that we hold at any given time.

It may sound strange if I claim, that the brain is not that much interested in truth or reality. The brain is fundamentally focused on self-preservation and is constantly trying to create its own sense of reality through beliefs. The brain then goes on to seek out and incorporate external information that further strengthens its beliefs.

Shankar Vedantam, author of ‘Hidden Brain’, says that facts do not matter as much as people generally believe. Telling people facts that go against their strongly held beliefs can be counter-productive. In-fact, it makes them dig-in their heels even deeper.

Stanford University Psychologist Leon Festinger beautifully sums it up.

“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION IS A HARD MAN TO CHANGE. TELL HIM YOU DISAGREE AND HE TURNS AWAY. SHOW HIM FACTS AND FIGURES AND HE QUESTIONS YOUR SOURCES. APPEAL TO LOGIC AND HE FAILS TO SEE YOUR POINT.”

It is worth repeating that most of our beliefs originate from the time we were children. They are not necessarily based on facts, but are based more on our perception of events as they were unfolding. We try to model ourselves around people who played significant roles in our lives – parents, teachers, religious leaders, older siblings etc.

One reason why placebos show similar impact like the drug, is because of our belief system. A placebo, as you know, is a pretend drug, a “sugar pill,” that is prescribed for a patient with the expectation that the patient’s belief in the efficacy of the drug will actually cause it to have an effect. And not surprisingly it does. The effect is real and is not imaginary. There was a report, sometime back, of a man who tried to kill himself by taking an overdose of pills that turned out to be placebos. However, the man’s blood pressure dropped precipitously, as it might have done if the drug had inherent physiological effects.

It should be noted that everyone is subject to the placebo effects and it is not something that occurs only in weak-minded subjects. However, the effectiveness of placebo effect depends on a number of factors like the seriousness of the condition for which the drug is being given, the emotional state of the patient, and the stature of the physician prescribing the drug.

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“Though the placebo effect remains largely shrouded in mystery, researchers attribute some aspects of the placebo response to active mechanisms in the brain that can influence bodily processes such as the immune response and release of hormones” says Amanda Enayati in a CNN article.

Incidentally, Neuroimaging studies have shown that, at the level of the brain, belief in Ganesha with the head of an elephant or the belief that a black cat crossing your path will bring you bad luck are no different than belief that two plus two equals four or Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India. Since beliefs are a result of learning, we can’t remove or eliminate superstitious beliefs easily just as we can’t eliminate learning itself.

This is the reason why it is so difficult to eliminate prejudices against one section of society or the other including the gender bias against women.

On the positive side, belief systems are not necessarily bad since we use our beliefs to give structure to the enormous, chaotic world in which we live. They help us to have a clear sense of who we are and what groups we belong to. And beliefs often help us, as human beings, to cope with and manage a variety of things that are too large in scope for our brains to comprehend.

I look forward to your comments.

nsraghavan

4 thoughts on “Insights from Neuroscience and Brain Research.”

  1. Thank you for sharing your blog sir. The subject of belief is very interesting to me as I ‘believe’ beliefs are fundamental to the way one behaves. Lot of beliefs come from our childhood. Unfortunately lot of indoctrination happens during this stage – primarily through religion and our education system. Only very recently, I have learnt to put my beliefs through an epistemological framework and it has brought in a lot of change in my behaviour. Once again, thank you very much for starting with this topic. I look forward to learning a lot through your blogs – Kumar.

  2. Thanks Kumar. Given that beliefs operate at subconscious levels, it will need concentrated efforts and very high levels of awareness to allow the thinking part of the brain to control the behaviour.

  3. “I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what!”…… I can’t forget this line from a song by Leonard Cohen!
    But it’s so evocative of deep down beliefs, origins of which completely elude us……that is, if at all we are even conscious of their existence!! So had to share that line in the context of this discussion 🙂
    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and views on NeuroInsights. It happens to be a matter of deep interest to me too!
    Our personal “firmware” which you have pointed as largely establishing itself in early childhood I understand happens almost entirely within 12 to 15 months of birth! And this has a lifetime impact. A majority of parents will have no idea that their baby is learning anything remotely connected with life-coping skills! I also understand that teenage (when the hormones seem to playing truant) is a window in time when this firmware is most amenable/ susceptible to some change (for the better or worse). I think if these facts are known and acted upon wisely, we would have more balanced and less maladjusted children and young adults. That can only lead to a better world 🙂
    The irresistible force with which our beliefs can shape and actually “create” reality for us becomes starkly visibly in certain types of mental illnesses and personality disorders. The movie “A beautiful Mind” based on the real life of John Nash, the mathematical genius who is considered the father of “game theory” is a powerful portrayal of this phenomena. It would say it’s a “must watch” for all those interested in the matters of the mind.

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