Defining Beliefs

In a 2001 Gazette profile, the writer Beth Kephart C’82 described Dr. Andrew Newberg M’93 as “the boy from suburban Philadelphia, who wanted to know—and was encouraged to ask—about all those things that disturb our dreams and inspire our poets. Why are we here? How do we understand the world and its many realities? How does the body work? And the brain? What goes on in there?”

In his ongoing research and books like Why God Won’t Go Away and the recent Why We Believe What We Believe, Newberg, who directs Penn’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2006], has continued to wrestle with issues of belief—both religious belief and more general convictions—and the relationship between mental state and health. Among the topics he addressed in a wide-ranging talk on Saturday morning of Alumni Weekend were the definition of the term beliefs and how beliefs are formed physiologically.

I think one of my favorite definitions [of beliefs] is “a feeling that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” It draws a distinction between things that we can or cannot prove. And what constitutes a proof is obviously variable; for us in the medical profession, we may need to have a randomized double-blind controlled trial that establishes something we want to prove. In philosophy, theology, and religion, it is different.

In fact, I was asked in an interview one time about Richard Dawkins, who was one of the big atheists. They asked me, “How do you respond to the fact that he said he doesn’t understand why all those people believe in God when there is not a shred of evidence that God exists,” and I said that depends on how you define evidence. If you go into a church or synagogue on Saturday or Sunday morning and ask if people have any proof that God exists in their lives, they’ll give you loads of proof. That might not be proof that Richard Dawkins would accept, but again, what I think happens is we have to look at how the beliefs that we have going in shape how we decide to accept or not accept various pieces of information as proof.

I tend to define beliefs this way, which tries to bring it into a neuro-psychological domain, but also keeps in mind some of the philosophical issues, as any perception, cognition, emotion, or memory that a person consciously or unconsciously assumes to be true. This idea about conscious or unconscious I think is important, because, you may not remember everything that I say today, but there might be some unusual nugget of information that may play out in how you decide things in the future, even though you may not be consciously aware of it. Your unconscious mind can be very helpful in shaping your beliefs. In fact there’s an interesting study that came out in the past year where they were looking at people’s responses to different pictures of faces of people of different races. What they found was if you show somebody a picture of a different race, they will have a response in their amygdala, the part of the brain that tells us there’s something important out there that you need to pay attention to, perhaps even something of potential harm. If you show the face of somebody that they don’t know of a different race, you light up the amygdala, but if you show them the face of somebody of a different race who is a friend of theirs, or a famous person that they do know, that amygdala response is attenuated; it doesn’t happen. So you can, through cultural and social interaction, learn over some of the built-in mechanisms and responses that we may have, but there are often these kinds of unconscious responses that we may not even be aware of. Within our brain, these different forces come together to shape our beliefs, our perceptions of the world, cognitive processes, social interactions that we have, and emotions that we have …

How do beliefs form physiologically? The key phrase is: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” There’s a lot of truth to that, physiologically. When you have neural connections that are formed through some type of process, there are other chemical messengers that are released that strengthen the bond between neurons, and that’s the way you learn. You learn 2+2=4 by saying it over and over, and eventually, that neural connection becomes stronger and that becomes ingrained in who you are. And the other [phrase] is the “use it or lose it” concept … We all studied pretty much everything in medical school, but if you didn’t go into surgery, and you went into endocrinology, you probably don’t remember much about how to take care of a person surgically. Vice versa, if you’re an endocrinologist, you don’t remember much about cardiology or dermatology, because we don’t use it all the time, and the brain begins to adapt to things we need and things we can use to be successful. That’s part of how our beliefs actually form …

When you talk about religious and spiritual experiences, that is why rituals like meditation and prayer and holidays and so forth become so important, because they continuously reinforce the beliefs and the ideas that are embedded within that religious or spiritual tradition. So if you have a belief in God in a particular way, and you pray to God, and you think about God, and your holidays are celebrating God, that continuously reinforces the belief that becomes your reality, and that’s what enables you to think about things in that way …

And yes, there are scientific beliefs as well … One of my favorite examples of scientific beliefs is when Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanics. It just didn’t make sense to him ultimately, and it had nothing to do with religious or non-religious beliefs. Somewhere in the recesses of arguably the most genius person ever, it was just something that didn’t make sense, even though today quantum mechanics is well accepted and a very important part of science. The more we focus on a particular belief, the more we believe it, the more it becomes a part of our reality. That’s part of why I think the studies that we’ve been doing, looking at practices like meditation and prayer, help us to understand what this process is all about. —Carter Johns C’07

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