Friday, July 31, 2015

On Belief - Introduction

On Belief

That's the Chinese (and Japanese, which borrowed from Chinese) character for belief. I happen to enjoy the study of Chinese characters and this is one of my favourites. Chinese characters can be elegantly simple or they can be enormously complex. I like this one because it lies somewhere in between, retaining an elegant simplicity while displaying some of the intriguing complexities that Chinese characters can also have. It's also one of the easier ones to decipher so it's quite fun as well. 

Most characters are combinations of what I call the 'basic characters' but which are formally known as 'radicals' (of which there are 214) and each radical will add meaning to the main character. In the character for belief, for example, there are two radicals. On the left, you can see a two stroke radical which is a variant on the character for 'man'. On the right is the seven stroke character for 'speech'. So together the character for belief might say 'man speak' or 'man speech' (I'm not sexist, by the way, but merely directly translating from original Chinese). So perhaps in ancient China (and Chinese language predates any modern western language by a good number of centuries if not millenia) the concept for belief was based on what a man spoke. He spoke what he believed, hence 'man speak' equaled 'belief' hence those two radicals becoming the character for belief. 

At any rate, Chinese characters are not only beautiful to look at, they're a lot of fun to study and I thought this brief and interesting (to me at least) preamble might be a fun way to introduce today's topic. 

Belief is a deep part of what makes humans "tick" and it is my position that critical parts of our belief systems become "broken" in long term mental health disorders and this broken or distorted belief system becomes a big part of the tangle in our minds that we have to sort out - and rebuild. I'd say with some certainty (and neuro-psychology evidence) that the powers of belief are also major components of how our brains 
create our realities but today I just want to stick to the concept of belief. 

I also consider belief - actually "remanufacturing" belief - to be critical in turning our mental disorders around and getting to a healthier brain and mental equilibrium, so let's start to have a little deeper look at what this thing we call "belief" is all about.

In studying neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience (as I like to say - and have several times in various pieces - the former is about the nuts and bolts of the brain, the latter about the mental phenomenon those nuts and bolts produce), understanding belief has become a favourite pursuit of mine. 

There is, I have found, no one way to strictly define "belief". The general concept covers a whole spectrum of human mental phenomenon which includes such things as trust, confidence, faith, feelings of assurance and credence, "hunches" and "gut feelings" and so on. The more one studies and observes human behaviour, the more one can see just how much various forms of belief are integral to and drive individual and mass human behaviour. 

We're not here to try understand all that too much today, however. What we need to do here is to get you the reader to a better understanding of how beliefs or lack thereof play a role in mental states and mental disorders and in order to do that we first need a basic understanding of what belief is and why we have the capacity for it. As well, we'll be looking at belief in all forms in more detail in numerous other posts and this is mostly just to set the table for that.  

Belief is actually an essential survival tool and that humans have this incredible capacity for belief is no evolutionary accident (I think certain animals, especially social animals with more evolved frontal lobes, have some capacity for belief but nowhere near the capacity that humans do but this is not the time nor place to get into differentiating between human consciousness and that of other species). 

In strict evolutionary terms, and why our species is endowed with the capacity to believe, is that throughout the millions of years of our evolutionary development belief is what pushed people to continue, and often ultimately thrive, despite what were very, very often overwhelming odds against survival or success. The capacity to believe was also an adaptive measure to conquer stress, anxiety and worry in times of shortages. 

For an example of the former we can imagine a time of conflict with a rival people. Your people may be greatly outnumbered, have inferior weapons and any honest and truthful evaluation of the situation would tell you that you were about to get slaughtered. This would mean just giving in to slaughter or surrendering, neither of which is ideal for the continuation of your people's particular genetic line (see Dawkins' 
The Selfish Gene or any of hundreds of sources on the basics of evolutionary genetics). Slaughter of course means your genes disappear altogether and surrendering means your genes get assimilated into the genes of the rival (and triumphant) tribe and thus all but disappear as well. In evolutionary genetics, where continuation of genes is the whole point, this is A Bad Thing. 

Chronic stress has always been both an outright killer or greatly impairs one's ability to act (acute stress response is a life saver, chronic stress response a killer). So in evolutionary terms, this was not ideal either. Chronic stress arises when a threat cannot be resolved. This could be a prolonged conflict, prolonged food shortages and other such threats to survival that keep the stress response system continually activated. Chronic stress kills or badly breaks down the brain and body, so this is obviously not optimal for genetic survival either. 

In either case, in either scenario of immediate or long term threat, there is one thing that will help overcome both the odds and the chronic stress - belief. 

The belief that you can defeat the enemy or threat (be it from a rival peoples or animal or environmental condition) will greatly up your odds of doing just that. It doesn't guarantee victory or survival of course, but it greatly ups the odds and in the world of genetic survival, it's all about increasing the odds. 

The capacity for belief during a chronic stressor like famine is very handy too. Again, a raw, honest evaluation of the situation - years without rain, no crops, no animals to kill for food, nothing to survive on in other words - would tell you that the odds of survival are incredibly slim and as with a battle situation with overwhelming odds against survival, the natural tendency would be to give up and just die. Again, strictly genetically speaking in which the passing on of genes is the whole point, this is a Bad Thing. But with the belief that rain is just around the corner or that food sources might be found elsewhere, you will push on despite what all the evidence is telling you. 

So today, to get to the point, humans are endowed with the capacity for belief because over the millions of years of our evolutionary development, the power to believe played great roles in upping the odds of survival or success. Or a given people thrived more - and thus genetically dominated more and thus passed on more of their genes - because they developed stronger rituals around belief, this belief system helped them more through times of difficulty and thus accomplished more. 

So that's a crazily brief, concise and simplified summary of the human capacity for belief. I'm tempted to get into where we get beliefs from but as that is a vast topic, I think that may be stretching the boundaries of what can be contained in a single post. I do need to break it down into the basic elements though as these are important to understand in order to grasp what I mean by 'manufacturing belief'. 

Like most human capacities, in any one individual there are a number of basic sources for belief. They are:

  • "pre-loaded"
  • learned
  • what your own brain will manufacture at any one time

"Pre-loaded" is a bit hard to verify but there is some compelling evidence that the capacity for certain beliefs of the religious kind might be part of the "neuronal package" some people are born with (genetically speaking, this makes sense in a hereditary sense). Most brain functions are learned through environmental adaption but some come "loaded from the factory". Recognition of and reaction to certain objects is one of these (basic facial recognition is present immediately at birth, for example, and the recognition of and fear of things like spiders, snakes and fire is another). Certain tendencies of belief may be another; IE: certain people may come "pre-packaged" with a higher capacity for belief in a higher being, for example.

This kind of "pre-loaded" capacity for belief may also be true of the kinds of belief we associate with "optimism" and "positive attitudes". 

 Beliefs that have been learned would be any of the popular belief systems over the past several thousand years. These we are not born with, but are acquired through cultural exchanges or memes. These could be religious belief systems or beliefs as explanations for things. These are very malleable and changeable in the brain. We used to believe that the sun revolved around the earth for example. This form of belief is easily verifiable as learned (though as noted, some people may come "pre-packaged" with a stronger neuronal basis for beliefs of these kinds). 

What your own brain will manufacture at any one time is perhaps most interesting. This will be how a number of specific, subconscious brain regions and systems evaluate incoming information. This information will be a combination of what you consciously perceive and actively seek (which would likely be a small minority) and what your subconscious perceives and compiles (the vast majority). With this conscious and subconscious information your brain will then come up with an inferred mental model to present to your conscious self about the chances of any given situation or thing that you need or would like coming to fruition. You "believe" you'll get the job, for example. You "believe" your team will win the World Series. And on and on in countless beliefs for which you have no proof, no way of knowing, but which are mere mental models on which you base future actions (like betting on your team to win the World Series for instance). This too is incredibly powerful (and as we'll see, perhaps the most dangerous). 

There are two other basic components to belief that are very important for us to understand as well. And they are:

  • faith based belief
  • evidence based belief

While these are very simple to distinguish, I believe they are crucial to differentiate. The former is easy - it is belief in something despite a total lack of evidence. All religions are examples of this kind of belief. But this does NOT mean we can dismiss this kind of belief for this kind of belief is critical to our survival or success. This is the kind that helps us despite the evidence of overwhelming odds against us. These are sometimes considered by many to be "delusional" beliefs. Which they may well be, but research shows that this capacity for delusional belief - beliefs that one can win, succeed, move forward, accomplish, that things will work out - is enormously beneficial to one's overall mental well being and can indeed often help one to achieve levels of success that may not have appeared to be possible at first. 

Evidence based belief is the scientific or investigative kind. This system of belief comes from assembling the best known facts and inferring or extrapolating a conclusion. It's still considered belief because the absolute proof of the inferred conclusion is not before us, but through all the evidence, we can put very well founded belief in that conclusion. An example of this is detective work. Nobody saw "A" kill "B", for example, but through all the carefully accumulated and assembled evidence, we can strongly infer that "A" killed "B" and comfortably make a decision based on that. And the same process works with all our scientifically based understandings of how things work in nature. This form of belief is a relative new comer to the human operating systems that our brains are made up of, but it too is critical to modern day survival. Or at least I'd argue it is, though of course we can see that it is not completely necessary. 

All beliefs and belief systems are enormously powerful and influential drivers of our behaviours (and thus such a critical element of ourselves to better understand, in my estimation). 

Now I'm not just prattling on about all this philosophical stuff for the fun of it (though it is fun for me), for I believe (in the evidence based sense) that a firmer, more scientific understanding of how our belief systems work is absolutely critical for learning how to survive  mental health issues - and I literally mean surviving in the sense of not dying either through suicide or the more common slow death through drug and substance abuse. 

For it is warped, or impaired, or distorted belief systems created by the brain that we can see in mental health issues that can often lead to suicide and "death by bottle or needle". In fact, I believe impaired belief systems are the very crux of mental health issues. 

Examining my own suicidal episodes and suicidal blackness, so often it was that my brain was often incorrectly examining "evidence" and giving me false beliefs that was leading me towards being driven to suicide or having an inner reality so dark and hopeless that I wanted suicide. 

On the other hand, often I cannot block out the harsh truth of my physical health and prospects for survival in my world and circumstances and this will give rise to suicidal darkness. 

Bipolars in particular struggle greatly with belief because manic and depressive phases create two entirely different beliefs - polar opposite beliefs. These can yo-yo back and forth so much that we're left literally not knowing what to believe about our selves, our abilities, our worlds - and most importantly, our odds of moving forward. 

So my very firm position is that it is untangling how the brain - your brain - creates belief or not is a crucial thing for you to learn to put you on better footing for moving forward in your life with less fear and anxiety and with a better sense of mental well being. 

It is yet another critical and fundamental aspect of how the human brain functions that too many of those charged with our mental health somehow no longer understand or reject outright.

This is all very important to understand as we learn to recognize and work through 
cognitive distortions as well as things we can begin to work on in our sessions of Mindfulness Meditation Cognitive Behaviour Therapy where we can begin to question and push back on some of our negative or distorted beliefs and begin to build more positive and optimist beliefs. It's a process, and a slow one, but the more we begin to do this and to "manufacture" more life affirming beliefs and to tie those to the new core values that we are building in our CBT sessions, the more we can build defenses against the dark times or a brighter and stronger light to lead us out of the dark times. 

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