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Neuroscience and “belief”, “faith”

Posted by Simon on June 8, 2010

The way the brain works is mindbogglingly fascinating and complex, in the same way that genetics is. The interrelationships between the various parts, hormones, neurons and then how they all relate to how humans actually live … well it’s just amazing.

I briefly discussed ‘mirror neurons’ in my 30-day blogfest on relationships. Mirror neurons fire when we see ‘intentional action’ in someone else (as opposed to random action like flitting about aimlessly). Interestingly these neurons appear to be the same those that fire when we actually take the action ourselves; so that’s how we know how to interpret the intention. But we seem to know it’s someone else taking the action so our brains basic threat/reward response kicks in based on the intention. Scary looking, wide-eyed, grimacing stranger approaching = threat = run away!

David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work was speaking tonight at a local event put on by the Int’l Coach Federation of New England (as in leadership, not sports). I’d read his book so for me it was a recap. One major theme he helped me remember regarding the social brain was the power of this threat response – it’s quicker, stronger, more lasting than the reward response. We have about one second after detecting the threat to squish it before it just addles our pre-frontal cortex to the extent that can’t think straight.

He put forward three techniques to handle it:
1. Focus on ‘direct experience‘ such as breathing, a cold beer, warm sun, ingrown toenail. Your brain has two neural maps to process experience but it can’t do both at once. So it can’t process ‘narrative experience’, such as matching scary-wide-eyed-man to past memories of scariness and pain, while it processes ‘direct experience’. This is why focusing on taking deep breaths calms you down when you’re nervous.

2. For low to medium threats, simply ‘label’ the feeling, rather than suppress it. This actually reduces the feeling (but dwelling on it increases the feeling, so don’t turn the label into dialog!). Nervous about meeting someone? Try saying to yourself, “I’m nervous, yes I am!” Procrastinating? “This phone call I have to make scares me”.

3. For bigger threats, you need to “reappraise” (reframe) the threat. Reinterpret: Scary man was actually annoyed and running for train, maybe?; Normalize: all people look like that; Re-evaluate: I’m twice his size and I have a gun; Re-assess perspective/values: I’m willing to die to protect this child, I don’t care what this scary man does to me.

So to the point of this post, “reappraisal”: it’s extraordinary, this ability to think different thoughts and so change your neurobiological reaction to something, your emotions, and then actually change your thinking again so you change your actions. “Thoughts” in this context are ideas, beliefs, interpretations and sense-making about the world and people and life … and God.

That is, “God”, on a simple level, is just part of the entire realm of things and people and people’s characteristics that shape how we neurobiologically feel and think and act. The only thing that varies among us is WHAT and WHO we believe and why. “Belief” itself is not a preserve of religious people, it’s a fact of all human existence. What and who and why we believe isn’t necessarily proved or denied just because we’re neuro-biologically wired for it. But the fact is those ‘beliefs’ do change how we think, feel and act, for the religious and non-religious person alike.


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