We create a tapestry of beliefs in our lives, some that help us, some that hinder. We build them on the back of childhood experiences, learned behaviours, difficult setbacks, and proven successes. However, it turns out, we have much more control over what we believe than we give ourselves credit for, and when we do pull rank on our cranky belief systems, we find that we can create much happier lives for ourselves.
“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.”
But that is changing. Now in the new field of social neuroscience, focus has landed on our beliefs systems; how we develop our beliefs and how we view those of other people. It shapes how we live our lives, how we interact with others, how we feel, how well we perform, how productive and happy we are.
“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 thinking.” 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.
Cognitive neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe tells us in her TED talk ‘How we read each other’s minds’ that there is a region of the brain geared especially for understanding our own and other people’s thoughts, knowledge, beliefs, desires and emotions. It’s called the Right Temporo-Parietal Junction (rTPJ) and is located above and behind your right ear. It’s not hugely developed in children who find it very hard to comprehend that other people have beliefs that are different from their own.
As we progress to adulthood we are more able to understand, and go on to make moral judgments on, what people believe and think by observing their behaviours, emotions and actions. However people with autism find it very difficult to understand other people’s beliefs, although those who are higher-functioning are often able to develop compensation mechanisms to bridge the shortfall. Indeed we probably all know people who seem to lack a degree of empathy when it comes to understanding us, and it could be that this area of the brain is under-developed.
Being able to step into someone else’s shoes works in two ways: The capacity of sharing and recognising an other’s emotion has been described as emotional empathy (Shamay-Tsoory,2011). The term cognitive empathy refers to empathy as a cognitive role-taking ability, or the capacity to engage in the cognitive process of adopting another’s psychological point of view (Frith and Singer 2008). Either forms of empathy require the use of imagination; the creation of images in our own mind that represent what we believe to be going on in someone else’s mind. In fact when neuroscientists observe the brain of someone asked to imagine someone else’s beliefs, they witness the rTPJ firing up.
“And yet, what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people? So ill equipped are we all, to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims.” Phillip Roth
Well, the scientists at MIT are now looking at ways to disrupt or scramble the rTPJ in order to change our entrenched beliefs or judgments and improve our ability to empathise with the beliefs of others. There is of course a moral dilemma associated with this, when it comes to Big Brother telling us what to believe or not. We can all benefit from having a highly tuned radar for the plight of others: especially as coaches, teachers, aid-workers, politicians, novelists and parents, but most of us don’t need the interference of a scrambling machine to disrupt our own harmful beliefs and create new beneficial ones. The more we can develop and build up the muscle of our imaginations, the more we can empathise with the people in the world around us, and the less we will make divisions between ourselves and others.
As Frank Borman, commander of the Apollo 8 mission, put it, “When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on Earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world, and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people?”
It is equally important to be able to have insight into our own belief system, because it has an enormous impact on our mental state and well-being. It is our foundation. We view and interpret the world through our belief system. When we harbour false beliefs that cause us harm, they stop us doing things we might otherwise succeed at, we judge others through a warped lens, we rush to conclusions without pause for thought. When we believe we can’t do something, we don’t try and we shrink wrap our experiences. Those that believe that there is nothing to be lost by giving something a go, naturally have a greater chance of making it happen. Beliefs are an extension of memory. When we have succeeded before, we bring that experience to our assessment of the present problem or challenge. When we have failed, we draw on that memory to undermine our current perceptions.
Peter Halligan says “A belief is a mental architecture of how we interpret the world […] 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?”
Beliefs are building blocks; they are the structure by which we understand our existence. They are handed down to us by our families, culture, and communities; they become entrenched, built up over time, like plaque, hardened and immutable. People’s beliefs can be manipulated through brain-washing, new messages repeated over and over in a stressful and emotionally charged environment. But equally they can also be disassembled and rebuilt in a way that is healthy and valuable, to create a more positive outlook. When harmful beliefs have become a bad habit we need to flip them over into helpful ones.
“Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain. 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.” Kathleen Taylor, Oxford University.
Harvard Psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert describes in his TED talk The Surprising Science of Happiness how our beliefs can be misplaced. When he showed the audience pictures of a lottery winner and of a paraplegic and asked who they believed to be the happier, the majority replied that the lottery winner would be happier. They imagined what it would be like to win a $million and equally what it would be like to be injured and left to live in a wheelchair. Their overwhelming belief was that it has got to be better to win the money. However Gilbert reveals that when lottery winners and paraplegics were tested one year after the happening of their fortune or misfortune, they were at equal levels of happiness. The audience’s belief and perception of imagined scenarios involving sudden wealth or disability were thrown upside down. The reality is that:
“Tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” William Shakespeare
Our beliefs influence our behaviour, effect our bodies and minds and can have a profound impact on others. With determination we can create beliefs that serve us well and give our lives the best chance of happiness. They are not rigid nor inflexible, we can challenge them and turn them around. We can synthesize them to work for us and not against us.
Work with Accredited Coach Lou Hamilton to bash down your false beliefs and create new beneficial ones. Lou@createlab.co.uk
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