Anatomy of Belief

Written on 11/21/15 in Starbucks in Los Gatos with a grandè mocha and electronic dance music (EDM) pulsating through my brain. I did not proof read this entry. I typed my thoughts down quickly so I can enjoy the rest of my weekend.

With the recent terrorist attacks in France, I keep hearing people ask: how can the terrorist’s believe what they believe, and then hurt so many people? The answer is much more complicated than “they’re just primitive in their thinking,” or “they’re just following what the Koran says.” Everyone has a belief system; and that belief system brings a semblance of coherency and order to one’s mental construct. More importantly, beliefs attempt is bring clarity to ambiguity. But this begs the question: How can so many people believe such bizarre things? Here are some quick thoughts.

We are born to believe

iuhoiFirst of all, we are born to believe. Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of patterns that we think we see in nature. As Michael Shermer puts it, “We are descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns.” There is a reason why I don’t grab at a hornet’s nest, or run through stop signs, or steal from Starbucks. The patterns I experience in life tell me that these examples would bring much harm to myself as well as others. Thus, I have cultivated a belief system based on the patterns I have experienced. My experiences help me better navigate through the world and find coherence. The patterns I see help me to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty in life. For instance, positive patterns of cooperation, reciprocity and altruism help solidify the ideal that these are needed virtues for healthy relationships. We constantly seek out pattern because they help determine what can advance or hinder our goals.

The brain is prepared to believe

With pattern recognition, we are put in a position to form causal links. For instance,

(a) If I grab a hornet’s nest … I will get hurt badly.

(b) If I lie all the time … I will have few (if any) friends.

(c) If I hear a bump in the night … It is most likely my cat and not ghost.

But sometimes we are stifled by our inability to form causal connections. For instance, encountering freak coincidences that leave you dumbfounded or even the appearance of the universe possessing a grand design leads most people away from simple natural explanations and towards supernatural ones. This inability to assign causal probabilities to sets of events around us often leads individuals to lump causal associations with non-causal ones. This is why the paranormal and the supernatural are so prevalent in our culture.

(a) A gust of wind blowing the wind chimes … is your deceased Aunt Betty saying “Hello”.

(b) Dreaming about a love interest and then bumping into him in the elevator … is how the Universe plays matchmaker.

(c) Praying for your struggling finances … and then getting a raise at work must be God’s giving you a miracle.

ljhkbouyjbnWhy is it, for millennia upon millennia, humans so easily give causal explanations that are supernatural in nature? The answer is that we are natural born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. Furthermore, there is a neurological component: when we do find meaningful patterns, it is reinforced in our brain. Out of  all the chemical transmitter substances sloshing around in your brain, it appears that dopamine may be the most directly related to the neural correlates of belief. In the divided brain stem there are pockets of roughly 15,000 dopamine producing neurons on each side that shoot out long axons connecting to other parts of the brain. These neurons stimulate the release of dopamine whenever it is determined that a received reward is more than expected, which causes the individual to repeat the behavior. The release of dopamine is a form of information, a message that tells the organism “Do that again,” or “This belief is good.” So humans will continue to see meaningful patterns which are reinforced by the brain – for better or worse. Human beings will never fully be comfortable with naturalistic explanations.

This explains why Academy Award Winners often give all the credit to God and so many football players genuflect after scoring touchdowns. Bronislaw Malinowski’s famous studies of superstitions among the Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific demonstrate that as the level of uncertainty in the environment increases so, too, does the level of superstitious behavior. “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range.” He goes on to say,

“We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the elements of danger is conspicuous.”

When individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively, they will try and gain it perceptively. We instinctively seek out patterns to regain control – even if they are illusory.

Beliefs are associated with self-righteousness, pleasure, and reward

idnwIndoctrination, when it feels like it makes sense, is a powerful and good feeling. Indoctrination amounts to inculcating individuals with specific ideas, attitudes, emotions, models, values, or cognitive strategies. These indoctrinated beliefs give structure, purpose, meaning to experience, ideologies, supposed evidence, and myths in highly specific ways. Indoctrination amounts to teaching others to respond in predictable ways to specific triggers – that is, it’s a form of brain control.

When the brain reinforces the indoctrination … watch out. No matter how magical the belief, when one finds the necessary structure and meaning in life triggered by ones brain chemistry, it will invariably fuel the passions and invigorate one’s worldview. I can personally attest to the intoxicating neurological euphoria of my Christian experience. Not only was it the dopamine in my brain reinforcing the belief, but also the reinforcement of what I felt in deep prayer. Prayer and deep meditation puts one’s posterior superior parietal lobe in sleep mode, thus giving a powerful feeling of, say, oneness with the universe. The parietal lobe a region of the brain that authors have dubbed the Orientation Association Area (OAA), whose job it is to orient the body in physical space (people with damage to this area have a difficult time negotiating their way around a house). When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly there is a sharp distinction between self and non-self. When OAA is in sleep mode — as in deep meditation and prayer — that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, between feeling in body and out of body.

But what does this look like? Well, I saw patterns in life and assigned non-causal associations, but those patterns added a bit of mystery and wonder to my world giving me a sense of awe – further priming me for [meaningful] magical thinking. Indoctrination of Christian doctrine entered my sphere and it quickly gave me an absolute structural foundation that brought coherence and purpose. This epistemic foundation was reinforced through repetitive rituals [prayer, church attendance, etc.] where neurological transmitters kept communicating: Behavior – Reinforcement – Behavior. Repeat sequence. Once my emotions became enraptured by the physiological and psychological effects, my belief was solidified. From 1997-2000, I was more than willing to die for my beliefs.

~ Wes Fornes