Originally posted on the IEET weblog

Why do We Believe What We Believe?

Why do people believe different paradigms and memes over others? At this point in time there are a number of theories that can be utilized to answer this question but they remain crude in nature.

Several views suggest that brain regions and neurotransmitters are responsible for the valuing of one concept over another. According to modern neuroscience a few crucial neurotransmitters play a central role in mood and belief. They include dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine.(5)(7) For example, abnormal dopamine levels in particular can lead to schizophrenia which we can attribute to the unusual difficulty of people who already understand a certain paradigm of knowledge to believe in another. Brain regions and critical periods also play a role.(7)

Figuring out why people believe in irrational concepts is a rather hard challenge. Homo sapiens are socially networked together, teaching each other stories that can be said to be false like the idea of God, concepts that are somewhat true like “treat others the way you want to be treated,” and paradigms that are said to be scientific theories like the theory of relativity. This network of telling stories about reality seems to resemble the very complex nature of the human brain.

The question of meaning, purpose and existence can take on many forms. In our developed countries, however, the scientific method, critical thinking, and the notion of the theory of everything are our leading paradigms of knowledge. Things can work completely out of tune, but can also work as intended like a well put together orchestra. Science has replaced the idea of God for the skeptic and critical thinker. When modern rationality governs the human brain we find that God has no place in this orchestra.

Nature versus nurture must play a role, because irrational memes/concepts propagate within cultures, they just don’t spring up from nature necessarily. However, it has been argued that our brains are hardwired to be gullible in the sense that they have been designed through evolution to believe in simplistic stories like the story of God.(2) Doxastic Voluntarism is a philosophical concept which states that people have voluntary control over what they believe in.(4) However, this can be argued against by a recent study of people with brain tumors who needed to have the tumors removed. The study showed that certain regions of the brain play a large role in spiritual belief.

Dave Munge of SEED magazine writes about how the brain may be susceptible to religion because of survival benefits.

“[It is argued] that cooperation is the key. Cooperation is clearly beneficial for human social groups in hunting, defense, child-rearing, and many other survival behaviors. Religion, they say, is a way of reinforcing the principles that join members of a group. Brembs points out that observing a religious ritual like a rain dance allows communities to identify loyal members and punish those who don’t seem to be contributing to the group.”

If the above is correct it would explain why leading research points to areas of the brain that may be hardwired for spirituality. Research of the left inferior parietal lobule and the right angular gyrus that contained tumors revealed that after surgery, the patients were more apt to believe in out of body experiences and spiritual occurrences. The conclusion that can be drawn from this research suggests that these two brain regions play a role in body ownership and spirituality. Brain lesions in the left inferior parietal lobule and the right angular gyrus show us that even without voluntary beliefs in “God experiences,” the brain itself loses something vital for critical thinking. If patients then lose the ability to critically think of their new experiences as being false illusions brought on by brain damage, these findings become quite important. (1)(2)

While nurture is a huge influence on the brain and the complexities that allow for irrational and rational beliefs, an understanding of neurons and neurotransmitters can help out. The Critical Period concept shows us that during certain periods of brain development, certain beliefs can take root. In order to undo these beliefs, the brain must use its plasticity. Memes and irrational concepts propagate within cultures because of the malleability that the brain allows. However, Doxastic Voluntarism shows us that mentally healthy people can in fact change their minds about beliefs in the supernatural. As people get older this plasticity is lessoned but still exists. It consists of making new neural connections and stronger synaptic bonds. (4)(7)

One can make the argument that people accept certain memes over others mainly because of what they are taught they will get out of believing them. If we apply instrumental conditioning (similar to classical conditioning) where we replace behavior with belief, the consequence would be, for example, that belief in god leads to eternal life in heaven. Or we can make the claim that “god experiences” lead to a warm feeling in the “heart and minds” of those who believe God is there for them. Therefore, they believe and act accordingly to what the meme’s reward is: eternal life and/or a good feeling.

In a conversation I had recently with a professor of psychology, we both agreed that a modification of the Critical Period concept is probably the primary reason why people in today’s culture believe in God. This would entail that the critical period for people to take on a belief in God would extend to adolescents and young adults. I personally started to question the existence of God in middle school where Prof. A. started to question her faith during high school. We are both agnostic/atheist primarily because of these experiences early in our brain development. We both accept modern paradigms of science over religion. (8)

Neuroscience has shown that specific brain regions, synoptic bonds, and neurotransmitters influence people to believe one concept over another. Philosophy , sociology, and psychology demonstrate how people can take on certain beliefs because of critical periods of learning, choice (Doxastic Voluntarism), cooperation, and instrumental conditioning. Each of these pressures on the brain can lead to the propagation of concepts/memes. There are no definitive schemes which explain why we believe what we believe as a society, culture, and world. However I would argue that in the healthy brain that all these reasons are interconnected, from brain regions, to simplistic mythical stories.

Rationality, as hard as it is to come by (and define), might be explained by the above interconnectivity as the brain acts homeostatic in nature. Brilliant minds have believed ideas outside of science and contributed to science at the same time, but when the brain is actively homeostatic, to me, it seems that the ability to believe in the scientific method is amplified. One can say that I am trying to make the claim in this article that believing in scientific paradigms and the scientific method is an example of rationality that has both nature and nurture reasons behind them, which will be explained in the near future through science.




(3) http://www.iapsych.com/articles/beauregard2006.pdf

(4) http://www.iep.utm.edu/doxa-vol/

(5) McGraw, J. (2004). Brain and Belief. Pleasantville: BooksJustBooks.

(6) http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/why_do_we_believe/

(7) Bear, M, Connors, B, & Paradiso, M. (2007). Neuroscience: exploring the brain. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

(8) Interview. Psychology Professor, Central Connecticut State University, 2010

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