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The neurological basis of belief

Let’s face it – the whole field of self development uses a LOT of fuzzy terms. Things that we seem to know and understand on an everyday basis, but which fall apart when put under any kind of actual scrutiny.

Things like belief.


I mean, we can all kind of sort of point to our beliefs, can’t we?

But when trying to define them, it gets a bit more troublesome. Even more so, when the definition is meant to have some actuall neural correlates. What are we really talking about? What processes are we describing?

I have to say, beliefs are one of these things which tended to piss me off in how they’re handled in coaching, self development and the like. It’s like they were these magical incantations people were talking about. Beliefs are important. Change your beliefs. Beliefs are crucial.

Ok, I’ll bite. Assume they are.



How the bloody specifically are they crucial?

In fact, what are they exactly?


Why marshmallows? You’ll see by the end of the article


And no, don’t give me the tired old crap about “well, you know what they are” without defining them.

No I don’t.

I kind of sort of imagine I do, that I certainly do. We all do. But kind-of-sort-of imagining is not enough.


It didn’t work for emotions, for which we have at least a couple of separate systems, with stuff like fear or joy being controlled by the amygdala, but disgust and loathing going round the scenic insula route. It certainly didn’t work for learning and memory, with so many different memory systems working at the same time. So if you have this nice little category of “beliefs” handy, you bloody better be ready to show me how they work. Because otherwise we might actually be talking about several different systems at once, stuff which only seems similar.

( And yes, I will do the tired old Poe quote of “what we might see or seem is but a dream within a dream”, thank you very much. Bizarrerie oblige and all that.)


That being dealt with, something seeming similar is really not enough neurologically, not when we might be dealing with such different patterns of neural activation. Imagine for example we had three different belief systems, and each of them is changed by different factors. Basically, 95% of our current cognitive research about beliefs needs to be redone, or at least seriously reexamined at raw data level, because they could be dealing with completely different systems and the data could be limited (or not) in all kinds of fascinating ways. And the idea isn’t much of a stretch – we already have research suggesting, for example, political belief has different patterns of neural activation than other kinds of belief. Now this might be a sign of political belief being just “more” – the standard belief system plus something extra, like some tribal structure network coming online together with the standard belief network… Or it might be a sign of different kinds of systems for different kinds of beliefs – and if so, how many and how are hey differentiated?

Or, obviously it might be crap, since fMRI studies, etc.


So I’ll ask again – what are beliefs exactly?

Now with emotions we have some basis at least – ancient automatic survival mechanisms, often hard-wired, connected in a double loop, one for basic action, one for long time planning (and experiencing, since it appears to be either a useful part of the process, or a side effect we’re stuck with). At least some of the time, with some emotions. And when it’s not, we know a bit about why and when and how.

Same with memories. Experience happens. Experience is replayed – the very same neurons stimulated time and time again, until fire together wire together presto-changeo, we’re there. Then the right stimulus causes the whole thing to be replayed again and we remember. Again, at least some of the time, with some memories. And when it’s not, we know a bit about why and when and how.


What I’m looking for, what I’m asking for is some kind of a rough map for beliefs here. And to be honest, I can’t really find one, despite a lot of searching. And it’s kind of irritating, because hey, wasn’t this supposed to be a big part of, well, everything psychology does nowadays? We have whole schools of psychotherapy centered on the bloody things, so a rough sketch of what we’re attempting to mess with would be welcome, thank you very much!

See, here’s the stumbling point. We have far better philosophical descriptions of beliefs, than we have neurological ones. And philosophy might be useful at times, but at points like these it’s crucial we get to the meat of the matter.

(No, I was not advising eating brains in order to better understand beliefs. Please have your resident zombies stand down, thank you kindly.)



Ok, so, meat of the matter. What exactly are beliefs?

Are they just memories? Or complex networks of memories? Memories with an in-built cognitive interpretation added in for bad measure?

This explanation could fly in some cases, but then we have all of the introjects, all of the beliefs we have no personal memories for, we just picked them up, dusted them off and now they’re here.

And then there are the beliefs we get with the sleeper effect or loss of memory of source – previously discarded, then worming their way to our brains like that one piece of pizza hidden at the back of the fridge…  Neither of these fall into the memory explanation that clearly. I mean, obviously, you need some memory just to learn the belief. Neurons only react to outside stimuli, they can’t fire by themselves and all that. But some beliefs appear to be made out of stimulation so limited, memory formation would forget to laugh about it! And there is no straight connection (that I know of) between amnesia (both retrograde and anterograde) and beliefs.

Also, the intense changes in general beliefs caused by temporal lobe epilepsy based religious experiences. If beliefs were memories, it’d mean one intense emotional experience can rewrite pretty any memory we have, which does not appear to be the case. People with such epileptic religiosity can reinterpret their lives, yes, they can change their major motivations – but their basic memories do not appear to change. They have had a revelation now and change based on this.


Now that factor would suggest a new kind of explanation. Are beliefs on-the-spot calculations then? See what bits and pieces light up on the old neural net and put them into order? That, however, would suggest them to be very malleable, at least as malleable as memories and in similar conditions. Also, the amnesia bit is troublesome here as well.


Another concept brought forth by the fMRI studies is identity. So are beliefs part of identity? Well, here of course we open a different can of worms, with the lovely question of “so what the frack is identity then”? We do know where thoughts of identity are being processed, sure, some of them relate to memories, with autobiographical memories appearing to be a fairly special kind (in area of storage, if not directly in system). We know there’s the sensory integration aspect, and the bodymap aspect, etc. We do know that in some cases of people being confronted with fact contrary to their beliefs, the brain parts associated with identity fire up. However the question is – does it relate to all beliefs. And, in fact, does this actually mean anything about beliefs at all? Perhaps it’s less about beliefs themselves, but more about identity being built on beliefs?


Point is, not only don’t we seem to know it, but we don’t really seem to have a good place to start looking. And despite all this, people tend to throw around the concepts regarding beliefs – good beliefs, bad beliefs, harmful beliefs, useful beliefs, changing beliefs, core beliefs, new beliefs, old beliefs, well la di dah! We’ve built a truly impressive mountain out of the thinnest, crispiest glass, and now we’re prancing around on it using stilletto-jackhammer heels and really not minding that when it cracks, it’s a bloody long way down. And noone (well, almost noone) seems to care about this sorry state of affairs, which is rather infuriating.

Thing is, we do need to start to care. We do need to actually start attaching the magic twinkly shapes of our belief spirit animals to specific bloody neural systems. Otherwise it’s so much hot air and little more.


Or, you know, we could just go the eliminativist way and decide there’s no such thing as beliefs at all. I am, admittedly, kind of tempted to go with it, to hope it catches on. Just to see how the self development world would deal with this situation…

Dear Cthulhu what an impressive dumpster fire that would be!

I mean I can just smell the marshmallows now, roasting them over that open flame of pretty much every single bloody thing in that field coming crashing down. The Secret? Just believe and it will happen? Sorry, there’s no beliefs. Sod off. Quacky cancer treatments where it’s beliefs that lead to ill health… Well, since there’s no such thing as belief… bye bye! Affirmations? Gone! Dozens of overthought and overused “change your beliefs” crap? Down the drain. It would be glorious!

It really would. Amusingly enough, my own practice would be almost unchanged, since what techniques I use for belief change, I mainly explain as metaphor for activating associations in a coordinated way – which probably adds to the warm and fuzzy feeling of imaginary, near unlimited schadenfreude I’m now experiencing. Mmm, these marshmallows smell SO GOOD!


That being said, while the eliminativist way does seem fun, at least for a while, unfortunately I do not think it is correct. We have a bit too much data collected on, well, something. Call it beliefs, attitudes, pre-programed-reasoning pathways, call it Jim since you’re obviously chums now. Hell, call it every fifteen minutes until it picks up and tells you to sober up for all I care! But there is something there, and whatever name we decide to give it, what I’d really care for is to look under the hood and see the lovely patterns of electrical current beneath. Just one piece of information, whether it’s one system or many, would already be such a huge thing, with so much potential! What exactly the system is based on? Does it need memories (at a larger level than for basic formation), and if so, which memory structures does it use? How does it change? What are it’s feedback mechanisms? So many questions, which could give us inspiration for so many techniques and solutions.


And we have nothing. And I fall from the warmth of the dumpster fire picnic to the frustrated blankness of staring at a wall which stubbornly refuses to stare back at me.


We have nothing.


How in the name of Cthulhu’s udders do we have nothing here? How is it not a thing, the thing in all of the cognitive research?


We literally have a major branch of psychotherapy based on working with the issues of belief… and we have less than a bag of air on the actual neural structure of belief.

How does this not implode under it’s own weight?

How are there not a million grants offered, here and now, for the answer to this issue?

Sod consciousness, it’s probably a parasite anyway. This is a much, much more basic question. And we aren’t, apparently, even attempting to answer it.


I mean, I could be wrong. I could’ve missed something. Lots and lots of somethings would’ve need to be missed, but I guess it’s possible. Only I know that at least a couple years ago others pointed to this problem, in widely read peer review. That much I was able to find. So unless there have been major updates, what I need to ask is this…