John M. Talmadge, M.D.

A Blog Covering Many Topics

Beliefs Shape Our Reality

This month's issue of New Scientist includes a thought-provoking article on beliefs and our view of reality.

Surprisingly large numbers of people also hold beliefs that a psychiatrist would class as delusional. In 2011, psychologist Peter Halligan at Cardiff University assessed how common such beliefs were in the UK (see below for the top 10 delusions). He found that more than 90 per cent of people held at least one, to some extent. They included the belief that a celebrity is secretly in love with you, that you are not in control of some of your actions, and that people say or do things that contain special messages for you (Psychopathology, vol 44, p 106).
None of Halligan's subjects were troubled by their strange beliefs. Nonetheless, the fact that they are so common suggests that the "feeling of rightness" that accompanies belief is not always a reliable guide to reality.

The Top 10 Delusions

1. Your body, or part of your body, is misshapen or ugly 46.4%
2. You are not in control of some of your actions 44.3%
3. You are an exceptionally gifted person that others do not recognise 40.5%
4. Certain places are duplicated, i.e. are in two different locations at the same time 38.7%
5. People say or do things that contain special messages for you 38.5%
6. Certain people are out to harm or discredit you 33.8%
7. Your thoughts are not fully under your control 33.6%
8. There is another person who looks and acts like you 32.7%
9. Some people are duplicated, i.e. are in two places at the same time 26.2%
10. People you know disguise themselves as others to manipulate or influence you 24.9%

One of the most interesting things about belief is that it varies enormously from person to person, especially on issues that really matter such as politics and religion. According to research by Gerard Saucier of the University of Oregon, these myriad differences can be boiled down to five basic "dimensions" (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 104, p 921). At their core, he says, these concern what we consider to be worthy sources of value and goodness in life, whether it be a concept, an object, a supernatural being or a historical person. Your belief system is the aggregate of your position on each of these five dimensions, which are independent of each other.

1. Traditional religiousness: level of belief in mainstream theological systems such as Christianity and Islam
2. Subjective spirituality: level of belief in non-material phenomena such as spirits, astrology and the paranormal
3. Unmitigated self-interest: belief in the idea that hedonism is a source of value and goodness in life
4. Communal rationalism: belief in the importance of common institutions and the exercise of reason
5. Inequality aversion: level of tolerance of inequality in society, a proxy of the traditional left-right political split

To read the full article, click here.

Neuroscience of Belief

In the current issue of New Scientist I came across a good article on the neuroscience of belief. Graham Lawton writes, in part: Beliefs define how we see the world and act within it; without them, there would be no plots to behead soldiers, no war, no economic crises and no racism. There would also be no cathedrals, no nature reserves, no science and no art. Whatever beliefs you hold, it's hard to imagine life without them. Beliefs, more than anything else, are what make us human. They also come so naturally that we rarely stop to think how bizarre belief is.
In 1921, philosopher Bertrand Russell put it succinctly when he described belief as "the central problem in the analysis of mind". Believing, he said, is "the most 'mental' thing we do" – by which he meant the most removed from the "mere matter" that our brains are made of. How can a physical object like a human brain believe things? Philosophy has made little progress on Russell's central problem. But increasingly, scientists are stepping in.
The neuroscientific investigation of belief began in 2008, when Sam Harris (Harris, S., Sheth, S. A. and Cohen, M. S. (2008), Functional neuroimaging of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty. Ann Neurol., 63: 141–147) at the University of California, Los Angeles, put people into a brain scanner and asked them whether they believed in various written statements. Some were simple factual propositions, such as "California is larger than Rhode Island"; others were matters of personal belief, such as "There is probably no God". Harris found that statements people believed to be true produced little characteristic brain activity – just a few brief flickers in regions associated with reasoning and emotional reward. In contrast, disbelief produced longer and stronger activation in regions associated with deliberation and decision-making, as if the brain had to work harder to reach a state of disbelief. Statements the volunteers did not believe also activated regions associated with emotion, but in this case pain and disgust.

To read the full article, click here.