Wired for Belief?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life brought together the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and the journalist David Brooks (yes, of neural buddhists fame) for joint presentations back in May, followed by a round-table Q&A discussion with a prominent group of journalists. The transcript of the entire event is now up, and that includes the audio as well as plenty more of the pretty brain graphics that you see here and some good event photos.

The presentations and discussions covered a wide range of topics, ably summarized and linked at the beginning of the transcript, including the physiology of beliefs and brains in meditation and prayer from Newberg and the revolution in brain research and neuroscience and soft-core Buddhism from Brooks. The discussion was also wide-ranging, going over issues such as Is religious Darwinism valid? and Brain physiology in party politics. As befits a Pew gathering, there is a considerable amount of attention focused on religion, atheism, and the like.

Newberg covers a lot of his take on the biology of belief as well as imaging research he has done on people praying or meditating. Here’s an excerpt on belief:

So our brain is trying to put together a construction of our reality, a perspective on that reality, which we rely on heavily for our survival, for figuring out how to behave and how to act and how to vote. But again, the brain is filling in a lot of gaps and helping us think certain things that may or may not really be there… So what are beliefs? Again, I apologize, but I always come at this from a scientific perspective. I am defining beliefs biologically and psychologically as any perception, cognition, emotion, or memory that a person consciously or unconsciously assumes to be true. The reasons I define beliefs in this way are several-fold. One is that we can begin to look at the various components that make up our beliefs. We can talk about our perceptions. We can talk about our cognitive processes. We can talk about how our emotions affect our beliefs. And we can also look at how they ultimately affect us. Are we aware of the beliefs we hold? Or are they unconscious? And which ones are unconscious and which ones are conscious?

And an excerpt connecting belief to the practice of religion.

The practices and rituals that exist within both religious and non-religious groups become a strong and powerful way to write these ideas into our brain. Again, go back to the idea that the neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you focus on a particular idea, whether it is political or religious or athletic, the more that gets written down into your brain and the more that becomes your reality. So that is why when you go to a church or a synagogue or a mosque, and they repeat the same stories, and you celebrate the same holidays that reinforce that, you do the prayers, and you say these things over and over again, those are the neural connections that get stimulated and strengthened. That is a strong part of why religion and spirituality make use of various practices valuable for writing those beliefs strongly into who you are.

Brooks aims to place these sorts of ideas into a social and cultural context.

I think the bottom line is there is this incredible revolution going on in brain research. To me, it’s a bit like the revolution of psychology or psychiatry that Freud started, except for this time I think it’s correct… [T]his tremendous revolution in neuroscience and related fields is going to have the same effect on culture and the way we think about human nature and religion and everything else. That’s what I’m going to talk about; not so much the science, but what I think are some of the themes driving the science that will spill out and are spilling out into the general culture. The bottom line of it all is we are now discovering the tremendous power of the unconscious, of the levels of cognition we’re not consciously aware of, that shape our thoughts. If you look at behavioral economics, if you look at neuroscience, if you look at psychology, if you look at field after field, in theology, in literary criticism, people are taking this template of unconscious cognitive processes and applying it to how we think.

And he makes a good neuroanth point:

One [change] is the plasticity of the brain, the incredible adaptiveness, the fire-together, wire-together idea that we’re not hardcore driven by material things, that we’re wired to adapt to environment and that the nature-nurture distinction is a bogus one, and that therefore, this plasticity makes it a less material, less predetermined organ.

Finally Brooks’ ultimate implication:

I think this is where the whole field of research will lead us as a society, it recognizes the power and reality of spiritual processes. But I would say in general, the literature treats any specific belief system as completely arbitrary. It knows that we have these beliefs. It knows that the mind is really good at making up stories. Some people in Jerusalem a few thousand years ago made up one story, another guy made up another story, there are still other stories. But it treats all of these stories as completely the same and arbitrary. I think if you read the research, you will see there is no reason to think one religion is any different or any better than the other. Where the research winds up ultimately is, frankly, at Buddhism, the idea that the self is this dynamic process. There is some generic spirituality that may or may not be tethered to a higher being, and importantly, to the idea that we are social creatures. There is no such thing as one individual brain. Our brains are all merged together in a series of ultimate feedback loops.

And those are just pieces of their talks, to say nothing of the interesting discussion, so check it out if you have the time and the inclination. In the meantime, I’ll be doing one or another of my ultimate feedback loops–playing a video game, writing, or musing.

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