[Paleopsych] Guardian: Where belief is born

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Where belief is born

    Scientists have begun to look in a different way at how the brain
    creates the convictions that mould our relationships and inform our
    behaviour. Alok Jha reports

    Thursday June 30, 2005

    Belief can make people do the strangest things. At one level, it
    provides a moral framework, sets preferences and steers relationships.
    On another, it can be devastating. Belief can manifest itself as
    prejudice or persuade someone to blow up themselves and others in the
    name of a political cause.

    "Belief has been a most powerful component of human nature that has
    somewhat been neglected," says Peter Halligan, a psychologist at
    Cardiff University. "But it has been capitalised on by marketing
    agents, politics and religion for the best part of two millennia."

    That is changing. Once the preserve of philosophers alone, belief is
    quickly becoming the subject of choice for many psychologists and
    neuroscientists. Their goal is to create a neurological model of how
    beliefs are formed, how they affect people and what can manipulate

    And the latest steps in the research might just help to understand a
    little more about why the world is so fraught with political and
    social tension. Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of
    California, recently showed how beliefs help people's brains
    categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely
    unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or
    fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.

    When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless
    black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala - the brain's
    panic button - was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was
    no difference in the response between black and white people.

    The amygdala is responsible for the body's fight or flight response,
    setting off a chain of biological changes that prepare the body to
    respond to danger well before the brain is conscious of any threat.
    Lieberman suggests that people are likely to pick up on stereotypes,
    regardless of whether their family or community agrees with them.

    The work, published last month in Nature Neuroscience, is the latest
    in a rapidly growing field of research called "social neuroscience", a
    wide arena which draws together psychologists, neuroscientists and
    anthropologists all studying the neural basis for the social
    interaction between humans.

    Traditionally, cognitive neuroscientists focused on scanning the
    brains of people doing specific tasks such as eating or listening to
    music, while social psychologists and social scientists concentrated
    on groups of people and the interactions between them. To understand
    how the brain makes sense of the world, it was inevitable that these
    two groups would have to get together.

    "In the West, most of our physical needs are provided for. We have a
    level of luxury and civilisation that is pretty much unparalleled,"
    says Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. "That
    leaves us with a lot more leisure and more space in our heads for

    Beliefs and ideas therefore become our currency, says Taylor. Society
    is no longer a question of simple survival; it is about choice of
    companions and views, pressures, ideas, options and preferences.

    "It is quite an exciting development but for people outside the field,
    a very obvious one," says Halligan.

    Understanding belief is not a trivial task, even for the seemingly
    simplest of human interactions. Take a conversation between two
    people. When one talks, the other's brain is processing information
    through their auditory system at a phenomenal rate. That person's
    beliefs act as filters for the deluge of sensory information and guide
    the brain's response.

    Lieberman's recent work echoed parts of earlier research by Joel
    Winston of the University of London's Wellcome Department of Imaging
    Neuroscience. Winston found that when he presented people with
    pictures of faces and asked them to rate the trustworthiness of each,
    the amygdalas showed a greater response to pictures of people who were
    specifically chosen to represent untrustworthiness. And it did not
    matter what each person actually said about the pictured faces.

    "Even people who believe to their core that they do not have
    prejudices may still have negative associations that are not
    conscious," says Lieberman.

    Beliefs also provide stability. When a new piece of sensory
    information comes in, it is assessed against these knowledge units
    before the brain works out whether or not it should be incorporated.
    People do it when they test the credibility of a politician or hear
    about a paranormal event.

    Physically speaking, then, how does a belief exist in the brain? "My
    own position is to think of beliefs and memories as very similar,"
    says Taylor. Memories are formed in the brain as networks of neurons
    that fire when stimulated by an event. The more times the network is
    employed, the more it fires and the stronger the memory becomes.

    Halligan says that belief takes the concept of memory a step further.
    "A belief is a mental architecture of how we interpret the world," he
    says. "We have lots of fluid things moving by - perceptions and so
    forth - but at the level of who our friends are and so on, those
    things are consolidated in crystallised knowledge units. If we did not
    have those, every time we woke up, how would we know who we are?"

    These knowledge units help to assess threats - via the amygdala -
    based on experience. Ralph Adolphs, a neurologist at the University of
    Iowa, found that if the amygdala was damaged, the ability of a person
    to recognise expressions of fear was impaired. A separate study by
    Adolphs with Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University showed that
    amygdala damage had a bigger negative impact on the brain's ability to
    recognise social emotions, while more basic emotions seemed

    This work on the amygdala shows it is a key part of the
    threat-assessment response and, in no small part, in the formation of
    beliefs. Damage to this alarm bell - and subsequent inability to judge
    when a situation might be dangerous - can be life-threatening. In
    hunter-gatherer days, beliefs may have been fundamental to human

    Neuroscientists have long looked at brains that do not function
    properly to understand how healthy ones work. Researchers of belief
    formation do the same thing, albeit with a twist. "You look at people
    who have delusions," says Halligan. "The assumption is that a delusion
    is a false belief. That is saying that the content of it is wrong, but
    it still has the construct of a belief."

    In people suffering from prosopagnosia, for example, parts of the
    brain are damaged so that the person can no longer recognise faces. In
    the Cotard delusion, people believe they are dead. Fregoli delusion is
    the belief that the sufferer is constantly being followed around by
    people in disguise. Capgras' delusion, named after its discoverer, the
    French psychiatrist Jean Marie Joseph Capgras, is a belief that
    someone emotionally close has been replaced by an identical impostor.

    Until recently, these conditions were regarded as psychiatric
    problems. But closer study reveals that, in the case of Capgras'
    delusion for example, a significant proportion of sufferers had
    lesions in their brain, typically in the right hemisphere.

    "There are studies indicating that some people who have suffered brain
    damage retain some of their religious or political beliefs," says
    Halligan. "That's interesting because whatever beliefs are, they must
    be held in memory."

    Another route to understanding how beliefs form is to look at how they
    can be manipulated. In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor
    describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the
    last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to
    persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.

    The first step is to isolate a person and control what information
    they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating
    uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole
    thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.

    "Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the
    brain," says Taylor. "If you challenge them by contradiction, or just
    by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them,
    then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very
    strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you're going to get a shift
    in emphasis from one to the other."

    The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns
    normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through
    a much more intensified version of that process.

    This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile
    arena, especially in times of anxiety.

    "Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to
    fall back on things they know well - stereotypes and simple ways of
    thinking," says Taylor.

    "It is very easy to want to do that when everything you hold dear is
    being challenged. In a sense, it was after 9/11."

    The stress of the terror attacks on the US in 2001 changed the way
    many Americans viewed the world, and Taylor argues that it left the
    population open to tricks of belief manipulation. A recent survey, for
    example, found that more than half of Americans thought Iraqis were
    involved in the attacks, despite the fact that nobody had come out and
    said it.

    This method of association uses the brain against itself. If an event
    stimulates two sets of neurons, then the links between them get
    stronger. If one of them activates, it is more likely that the second
    set will also fire. In the real world, those two memories may have
    little to do with each other, but in the brain, they get associated.

    Taylor cites an example from a recent manifesto by the British
    National Party, which argues that asylum seekers have been dumped on
    Britain and that they should be made to clear up rubbish from the
    streets. "What they are trying to do is to link the notion of asylum
    seekers with all the negative emotions you get from reading about
    garbage, [but] they are not actually coming out and saying asylum
    seekers are garbage," she says.

    The 9/11 attacks highlight another extreme in the power of beliefs.
    "Belief could drive people to agree to premeditate something like that
    in the full knowledge that they would all die," says Halligan of the
    hijacker pilots.

    It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion,
    prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as
    discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different.
    "There's probably a whole combination of things that go together,"
    says Halligan.

    And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be
    several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for
    example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain
    discussions because they have a large number of neural networks
    feeding into that belief.

    "If you happen to have a predisposition, racism for example, then it
    may be that you see things in a certain way and you will explain it in
    a certain way," says Halligan.

    He argues that the reductionist approach of social neuroscience will
    alter the way people study society. "If you are brain scanning, what
    are the implications for privacy in terms of knowing another's
    thoughts? And being able to use those, as some governments are
    implying, in terms of being able to detect terrorists and things like
    that," he says. "If you move down the line in terms of potential uses
    for these things, you have potential uses for education and for
    treatments being used as cognitive enhancers."

    So far, social neuroscience has provided more questions than answers.
    Ralph Adolphs of the University of Iowa looked to the future in a
    review paper for Nature. "How can causal networks explain the many
    correlations between brain and behaviour that we are discovering? Can
    large-scale social behaviour, as studied by political science and
    economics, be understood by studying social cognition in individual
    subjects? Finally, what power will insights from cognitive
    neuroscience give us to influence social behaviour, and hence society?
    And to what extent would such pursuit be morally defensible?"

    The answers to those questions may well shape people's understanding
    of what it really means to believe.

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