By Sanah Thakur
Information has become the currency of the world. New content circulates the globe constantly, refilled consistently by media from numerous time zones. As passive recipients of the information currents, there is an inverse relationship between the time we spend contemplating this information and the rate at which we consume it. Have you ever just sat down and thought about how much content you process on daily basis and how much of it, you have no expertise on. Since it isn’t possible to question every single piece of information we consume, we have to trust our intuition and choose to BELIEVE it’s true. Imagine now, how many things we believe to be true but have never truly identified as fact or fiction. And what happens when our brain gets attached to these false beliefs, when counter beliefs are brought to life and our internal beliefs are challenged? The way online discourse has been taking place recently, it’s quite obvious we can agree that people are gambling their emotions in a game of beliefs rather than facts.
History of Beliefs
The whole world works on a belief system. We believe in the power of money, in the power of governments. You’d hope that the confidence with which we share our beliefs in the world would guarantee that we know what we’re talking about. Yet, even as a Psychologist, I often forget the actual definition of the word. In simple terms, a belief is defined as an idea or principle that we judge to be true. Dating back to our ancestors, it’s interesting to note that beliefs were formed only through actual lived experience. As the only information crucial to your survival was what you experienced yourself, there was no need to accept information learnt through the eyes of others. After all, a false belief could actually lead to your death. Belief formation has since changed from aiming at accuracy to ensuring maximum efficiency.
Beliefs that are based outside direct experience, evolved from the introduction of language and are today referred to abstract beliefs. With the abundance of information available, from millions of views, the process of belief formation has become quicker and not as accurate. We form abstract beliefs by:
1. We hear something;
2. We believe it to be true;
3. Only sometimes, later, if we have the time or the inclination, we think about it and vet it, determining whether it is, in fact, true or false.
To add to this, the neurochemistry behind belief formation reveals that emotions strengthen our beliefs and therefore, we hold on to beliefs that might not even be true.
Neurochemistry of Beliefs
Dr Shermer, author of The Believing Brain, provides a comprehensive two process model on belief formation, highlighting the emotional attachment. He refers to the brain as a belief engine, constantly seeking patterns from sensory data flowing in from the environment, and ultimately infusing them with meaning. The first process, patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. Followed by the second process called agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. In other words, Dr Shermer explains how the brains ability to create meaningful patterns of external information become beliefs. Once these are formed, the brain actively seeks evidence to confirm and support the belief, which in turn emotionally boosts the beliefs and reinforces them. This process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation, which is then hard to change. This is why when we hear opposing information or are challenged on our beliefs, our brain gets triggered into defence mode. What’s even more interesting is the way our biochemistry gets affected by our beliefs. Each and every cell in our body is fully aware of our beliefs and this belief reinforced awareness becomes our biochemistry. If you believe you are sick, the biochemistry of your body will unquestionably obey and manifest it. If you believe you’re fragile or tough (despite your body weight and density), your body will mirror it.
Funny how something so essential to our identity is still blurry in its effect and power it holds. Now that we’re a little closer to understanding how our beliefs can affect us, we can play a bigger role in shaping them and controlling how they manifest within our brains.
* The author can be contacted on Instagram @sincerelysanah
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