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Biology of Belief

About Abhijit Naskar

Abhijit Naskar is one of the world's celebrated Neuroscientists, an International Bestselling Author of numerous books and a popular advocate of mental wellness and global harmony. He has revealed to the world with his contributions in Science how the basic awareness of the brain can completely redefine our perception of life and make our daily life much more cheerful. He takes us on a fascinating investigative journey of understanding the human mind and its vivid features. He was born in Calcutta, India. His rejuvenating scientific philosophy of the mind has been lavishing human life with the colors and sweetness of self-awareness, since its advent with his very first book "The Art of Neuroscience in Everything".

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Have you ever wondered, why do we believe what we believe? Why some humans are religious, some spiritual, some extremists, some agnostics and some others atheists? What is it that makes various human beings perceive different things at different moral, logical and spiritual level? What makes us so different in terms of beliefs and dis-beliefs? And why is it so hard for humans to embrace each other’s beliefs? And the ultimate question is, does our belief actually allow us to connect with the reality? Does it have any significance in the human biology?

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In this article we are about to embark on an enlightening journey of belief, biology and philosophy. And in the end we shall discover how imperative it is to sometimes acknowledge each other’s beliefs and accept people the way they are, because one’s beliefs are not merely a matter of ideology or intuitions, rather it is a rudimentary need of the human mind. And for a truly cheerful and productive human life one’s belief should be in perfect harmony with Science & Philosophy.

So, let’s begin with a simple yet quintessential question of human life – what is belief?

To quote from my book Autobiography of God: Biopsy of A Cognitive Reality 

“Belief is the brain’s natural self-maintenance mechanism.” It enables a person function properly in daily life, without worrying about the true nature of reality. Belief is exclusively a matter of personal domain. It has nothing to do with reality. And conflict occurs when a person tries to impose his or her beliefs onto others.

The human brain is quite selfish. Its first concern is the satisfaction of its owner. The common human brain of the masses doesn’t care about the truth of the universe. It doesn’t care about scientific enlightenment. It doesn’t care about reasoning. The only thing it cares about is survival. And in order to survive it does everything in its capacity to keep a person bound inside a tiny circle of beliefs and fantasies. And every time another person tries to break that circle by refuting the beliefs and talking about Science, the brain kicks into self defense mode. Now it shall do everything to sustain the beliefs and fight every incoming argument with a blind eye. This is because one’s beliefs no matter how magical or mystical or unscientific they sound, help the person get through the daily struggles of life.

In short, belief is a common element of human life the purpose of which is self-preservation. Even we scientists often pursue a hunch based on our beliefs. The only difference is that we cannot call that hunch Science, until we actually prove it through rigorous experimentation. There was a time, when Evolution was a hunch or rather a hypothesis in the minds of a few naturalists. Hence we received the famous book of biology “On the Origin of Species by means of natural selection” by Charles Darwin. Then we started to look for more evidence to back up the theory. And over time we gathered a pile of anthropological and genetic evidence, enough to include the Theory of Evolution as an incontrovertible fact of science.

Now let’s talk about supernatural beliefs. The whole world is filled with various unearthly and supernatural beliefs, such as demons, advanced ancient civilization, extraterrestrial intervention in ancient human society etc. All these fantasies are the products of the brain’s myth-making mechanism. And in fact, it is very easy for the brain to fall prey to these fantastic illusory ideas and conspiracy theories. This is because your brain has an innate attraction towards everything that by definition belongs to a domain, that is apparently “beyond human understanding”. Your brain has an affinity towards all those conspiracy theories and paranormal fantasies. And there is an evolutionary reason behind it. It is because we the humans have remained in the fear of the unknown throughout the most of our 200,000 years long existence. And that innate bond between the human mind and the unknown still exists in the limbic system of the brain.

Now let’s look at some modern life scenarios where this ingrained affinity towards mysticism and the unknown becomes a curse for the society. The innate primordial attraction towards the unknown often makes people fall prey to fraudsters like psychics. However, if we talk about psychic abilities, even you have such abilities. How many times has it happened that you think of a word and suddenly the person in front spits out the very word. These are random incidents that occur in everybody daily life. It cannot be controlled or simulated. It is something that happens when you least expect it.

All these bizarre phenomena fall into the category of Extra Sensory Perception or ESP. Parapsychologists have been studying these phenomena for a long time. And the evidence is too significant to call these phenomena as coincidence. ESP does indeed occur. So far we have developed several possible scientific hypothesis for ESP. The most plausible one is that human brains are capable of sharing information through Earth’s geomagnetic field.

But you must remember, despite the fact that we have highly plausible scientific explanations for ESP, it is still all hypothesis. We haven’t yet been able to prove it as a fact of Science. Because to prove a phenomenon as Science we must replicate it inside the lab.

And there’s the biggest problem with understanding the Science behind ESP. Until now we have no way to replicate an ESP phenomenon. Because they happen naturally in the human mind, and mostly in incidents of crisis. And we cannot take the unscientific risk of triggering an ESP phenomenon in the human mind by putting another human person into a crisis. Such phenomena are unpredictable. And in most cases they occur out of the blue. So it is close to impossible to trigger such phenomena in a controlled environment.

So don’t fall prey to all the fraudsters around you claiming to be psychics. In most cases they use what we call in psychology “Barnum statements”. Astrology, tarot card reading, and all those hocus focus stuff around you, use these statements. The special feature of these statements is that they happen to be true for almost any human being. And especially when a person goes to a psychic expecting answers to various confusing questions, his or brain automatically embraces the common statements from the psychic as exclusive remarks about the person. Your brain always keeps anticipating a pattern even in the chaos. So unless you have a truly rational mind filled with scientific curiosity it is very likely for you to become a prey to those predators who are always looking to feed on the sufferings of good and gullible people.

However, if a grieving person visits a psychic with the hope of getting in touch with the departed soul of his or her loved one, in order to have solace, then I really don’t have any idea how to convince the person that the so called psychics are frauds. Because to the grieving person, the psychic acts as a ray of hope – the last resort to say good bye to a person whom he or she cared about deeply. But for this very purpose we have the field of psychiatry. We have developed highly advanced anti depressants, mood stabilizers various other medications that can help in easing the grief. Now it is up to a person’s own conscience, which one to choose.

As far as the human mind is concerned, when it is in distress, all it cares about is finding hope. And it doesn’t matter to the mind where that hope comes from. It is all about self preservation. That’s why your brain is always trying to make sense out of nonsense in order to give you a sense of calmness. It is always looking for pattern in the unknown. In fact, it quite successfully makes you see things even in the nothingness. This psychological phenomenon is known as Pareidolia. It is why your mind often perceives a figure in the cloud, or a face on a random rock formation. It is your mind that always plays tricks on you. And in every situation of your daily life you see what you really want to see, rather than what really is.

Believe it or not, none of us is able to see the reality as it is. Your brain has a very limited field of vision, when it comes to conscious perception. Everything outside that field is cut out as background noise, so that you can focus on the task at hand. No matter how much we pride ourselves to be the smartest species on earth, the reality is we are partially blind, and shall remain that way forever. And this partial cognitive blindness often leads to superstitions, especially in times of weakness. When the mind is weak, it is easy to succumb to all kinds of fantasies and superstitions. But when such fantasies and superstitions become barriers in the path of humanity’s progress, then it is imperative that we the modern human beings do our best to shake them off.

Every human being is neurologically predisposed to be superstitious. However, to counteract such superstitions the brain has also developed the feature of reasoning in the neural network of the frontal lobes. But in times of distress, that feature gets highly suppressed by the overwhelming feeling of sadness and anxiety. Hence, lack of reasoning leads the mind to seek absolution in the supernatural domain of the society.

However, those who practice reasoning and rational thinking in daily circumstances, are much more likely to avoid the hocus focus stuff in times of distress, than those who don’t. It is all about realization of the self.

The point is, human mind cannot function properly without some kind of belief system. So, for the sake a truly cheerful future we must work together to align our beliefs in the line of Science and Philosophy, as much as possible if we truly want to advance as a species, keeping in mind, that it is not possible for a human to be completely free from beliefs, because beliefs are crucial cognitive mechanism of the brain. However, one’s personal beliefs should not stop him or her from embracing the practicality of Science and the fragrance of Philosophy. There should be a healthy balance between the personal domain of beliefs and the rational realm of scientific & philosophical thinking.

 

(This Article was originally published on Goodreads, under the title “Belief and Reality”)

Further Reading
Abhijit Naskar, 2015, Neurosutra: The Abhijit Naskar Collection
Abhijit Naskar, 2016, Autobiography of God: Biopsy of A Cognitive Reality

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