Belief is the most important aspect of our day to day existence. What we believe will determine how we negotiate through life. It is with us from the moment we rise from sleep until we retire at night. Even though it is a major part of us all, we rarely consider how it became a part of us in the first place. What I hope to do here is uncover some of the machinery that makes our Belief system possible from a purely graphical and visually clear manner. This will be helpful for anyone desiring to reflect on the interplay of our experiences and its influence on how we judge events and people around us. Enjoy!
Our beliefs provide us a way to manage our life. Think about it for a moment. You reading this article in an environment that is stirred with activity. You probably did not entertain the thought of what has happened for you to be here and now as your eyes capture the words as I type them on my document. You came across this writing and paused to see what words will come next, while in the background, outside of your immediate focus people are talking, cars are moving, a mild breeze is blowing and lights are buzzing. In order for you to attend to my words there has to be something at work behind the scenes of your mind; something which is comfortable with the ‘known function’ of all the activity around you. You “understand” that all the background activity has a regular pattern of operating; a pattern which is consistent and fairly predictable in its function. You can follow my words knowing people will talk, there will be motion, the buzz of lights will remain fairly constant. This would not be possible without a form of belief. Belief is the way in which we understand things to be. It is what we have learned through our experiences and it becomes more fixed as we acknowledge the regularity of what we perceive both in observation from others and our own applied practice. The more fixed a belief seems to be, the more we ‘depend’ on its use for us.
I believe bees can sting, that a fire is hot and that people can be kind. When I hold these things to be true, based on my experiences, I can expect certain things around bees, around fires, and around people. Beliefs are how we see our world and how we interact with our world from our own interpretation.
The Lens of our Beliefs
We have often heard of people wearing “rose colored glasses”. Such people seem to see good in almost any situation. They seem to have a way of seeing obstacles and hardships in a way that many others do not see the same situation. In other words, they interpret events in their life differently.
What seems to have made this interpretation possible is the life experiences we have. In an exaggerated example, we probably know young kids who believed they were some superhero and tried to take a dive off of an elevated structure. We call that being “naive” or not having enough life experiences to determine what is actually true in practice.
Yet in another story is a man who wandered too far from a known trail in a desert and became totally lost. After a few hours of his desperate journey, feeling dehydrated and weak he happened upon a map partially exposed from the sand. He glanced at the location and reconsidered his position before determining his best path back to the nearest town. Sure enough, within the next hour, he arrived at a town where he could finally get some fresh water and a place to get some rest. He shared with the innkeeper how miraculously, he found a map that helped him to survive his life-threatening situation. But after looking the map over, he realized that the map was for a completely different place..and not related to his location.
The point is that he believed where to go for help, even though it was not based on true experience. Belief leads to actions and what we experience as a result will serve to modify our beliefs.
Psychologically, our beliefs are central to our day to day existence. Beliefs arise from our perceptions, which are maintained by our values. The values we hold provide the interpretive lens whereby we operate and negotiate through life.
Many values that form our perception were not consciously chosen but were acquired passively through primary caregivers. During our development, these values solidified through reinforcement as we modeled from those that approved our aligned choices. Such acquisition of values was learned in the home. Yet in a greater realm, we adopted the values of our society as well. Our familiar culture is, after all, our long-term guardian through much of life. When strife arises in much of our world, often it is due to unaltered prejudice and social bias that simmered in our cultural differences long before personal conflicts surfaced. This quiet current tends to have a significant impact on our belief systems and worldviews.
This is readily apparent in Psychiatry, through sudden, intense traumas resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). I have observed the impact of PTSD with some of my clients returning from wartime assignments. For these traumatized soldiers, even pre-assigned routines of life can be significantly disrupted. For those that are significantly traumatized, their civilian narrative is rewritten. Their own identity is significantly altered. 1,2
In dealing with soldiers preparing for deployment, it is important to assess the worldview (beliefs), especially with those who have had a life of great stress (Weltanschauung) before trauma occurs. Individuals at risk of developing PTSD include those who tend to have an ‘all or nothing’ view of events and their part in them. Cultural stereotypes (especially about gender role) are highly relevant (Turner et al, 1996). 3
Beliefs provide a sense of constancy, a measure of order in an otherwise chaotic world. As important as this is to our sense of comfort, many beliefs can be altered by unexpected circumstances. If one’s beliefs are radically altered, it produces a shift in our perception and the evaluation of our experiences. When one’s belief is crushed by a sudden and unexpected catastrophe, then even our very identity can be challenged and potentially, the daily function can become arrested. Damaged beliefs are very difficult to rebuild
The Belief Model
What I like to present in this paper is a way to understand how beliefs, perception and our values fit together. My model seems to align with research efforts in neuroscience studies and my personal experience with interventions in therapy. Most importantly, I believe this model can be useful to make concepts of belief more clear. Anatomy is the area of study for education in medicine. One starts with the body as a whole and each system is covered by understanding how all the parts fit together. This is my goal for our topic of belief. Join me and together we will see how this topic can be better teased out and systematized.
In order to move the chair closer, we will need to understand that the term Beliefs implies more than one belief. We have numerous beliefs related to a large variety of separate topic categories. Therefore, Beliefs are never a singular structure, but a class of similar belief structures.
As depicted, each belief structure represented here as a rock crystal is a ‘set of ways”, for each belief. Each structure is composed of numerous retained experiences with a common theme. For example, you may have a belief about God, a belief about Farming and a belief about cooking. Each belief, though clearly different from each other, are still alike as belief structures. This is my belief about cooking, apart from my belief about farming, apart from my belief about God.
Beliefs are the common themes
Our beliefs are also dynamic, as they become more fixed or modified by new experiences. As Beliefs are built over time from various collective experiences, they are usually modified by a gradual basis dependent upon the aligned similarity of added experiences we encounter. As primitive beliefs become established, (i.e. remain either untested or considered validated from additional experiences), they become more fixed and resilient to new experiences, much like the hardening of a crystal with age.
Now let us take a look at an individual Belief crystal.
Filters of Beliefs: Perception
We tend to filter information which we receive from our world. Based on the established beliefs, the new information we gain will be either tagged (or labeled) with a particular importance value. A highly rated value is selected for keeping and will become integrated into our constructs of belief. Values which are judged as incongruent or conflictual to our established beliefs, tend to be diminished or even dismissed. After encountering a number of conflictual interpretations from a formally established belief, we tend to modify our perception framework to accommodate its inclusion in the belief entity. This is accomplished by altering the composite values that make up our perception scheme.
To illustrate this, let’s imagine a young man believes “all girls are great companions.
Belief about Girls
Let’s say that his belief “all girls are great companions’ had never been challenged but unfortunately his girlfriend wanted to end the relationship. Now, he may still believe girls are good companions and seek other relationships. However, if numerous attempts with dating end in a similar failure, he may then modify his belief “all girls are great companions”,
and conclude “some girls are bad companions”. In such a case, he has modified his belief by changing object values about his perception of all girls.
This broken-hearted man will no longer perceive girls as he had originally. His perception filter has been modified. So, how did we construct the filters for these beliefs? As mentioned above, a belief is comprised of a number of constructs around a common theme.
Let us move the chair closer and consider the construct of a single Perception Lens (or crystal face). What we want to know is what seems to be required for a single lens to exist.
Let’s look at a simple activity where we are going to fry an egg.
In order to investigate “frying an egg”, let us imagine that you are a contestant on a TV game show. The host presents you with the question, “what do you need to fry an egg?”.
You respond by saying you need the following items.
- a fresh farm egg,
- a frying pan, and
- a heat source
Even though these are independent items, when they are considered together, they are objects that make up the parts of the particular activity, “cooking an egg”.
Heat, Frying pan, and Fresh Farm Egg are all objects linked by a common value (within the context of belief) and they share a common charge connection to the common perception of “frying an egg”. Related objects resonate with the shared situation.
Common Objects that share a relationship to connected objects, promote a particular perception (lens)..
This was just a simple example. However, all objects possess characteristics that may can make a huge difference from other objects in a similar class. For example, when you come to a stop light at an intersection, whether you stop or go does not depend on the physical light structure. It is all about the color you see which determines your actions. This is important to consider when just a unique characteristic like color, can make a significant difference in how we interpret associated objects. In that a subtle characteristic, like color can make determine vastly different actions, there is a clear value associated with it.
We can see that colors do have an attributed value just to a very common question from others when asked, “what is your favorite color?”. Having a favorite color implies a value over other colors. Therefore, objects do not base value only on structural physical entities, but a value for a common object may be due to particular part any characteristic or action which is common to the class of objects. Since objects can be attributed a value based only on a subtle characteristic difference, all objects bear a value with a range of charge associated with its features.
Every object also has value. In fact, any object which you can identify uniquely represents a value order which is personal and likely different in rank value to other objects in the same class. This is also true in the operations of the memory. Any object that you can perceive apart from other objects in your own mind is attributed to different values and elicits an associated emotional response which is uniquely tagged in your brain’s data bank.
Let me state that again in a different way, ANY cue that will trigger memories has an emotional value. Neuroscience has shown that any distinctive stimulus can be a trigger for memories and the value we attribute to such cues reflect their relationship strength of the connection. If it can be retained in memory, it must be an object impression and it must have a related value in order to be retained.
Common Object Theme: Perception Filter
Our perception provides an interpretation of our world, which operates from the very same mechanism except in reverse. As our particular experiences served to tie particular items and situations together in our mind, we adopt an understanding of what we can expect to experience when we are faced with a similar situation.
As we live each day we are constantly challenging and modifying our perceptions. The degree to which change our perceptions will depend on the impact the new experiences have on the foundation of the initial perception. Each new experience will result in strengthening the related charged objects which support the initial perception, or if incongruent will modify the objects that established the initial perception.
Not all charged objects are created equal.
Sometimes a novel experience can make a significant change to what was once a fairly stable perception. This especially happens when the value of a particularly important object has a lot of emotional charge and influence on the developed perception. An example of this dynamic is when there has been a loss of a loved one. This has a potential to radically shift the perception of how we see our world.
The Brain and Perception
Let us just briefly cover the steps on just how the brain processes perception parallel to this model.
Imagine you are a contestant on a game show. You are shown three words to determine their common situational relationship;
Here are the words:
Once registered, your frontal lobe prompts your hippocampus for query.
-The frontal lobe serves as the command and assessment function. It begins to “look up “ each word and their associated context for meaning.
-The Hippocampus serves as an Index filing cabinet for the brain and keeps many loose tabs readily available to search by your judgment center (frontal lobe).
Frontal Lobe Query
Hippocampal Library is accessed by frontal lobe fingers, but to do this we have to look up each word and hold their related contexts.
The frontal lobe looks up each word in contexts, yet it has to hold each context in common buffer while the common relationship is explored.
The Cerebellum serves a skills module subsystem that runs each word through a search query and then goes to the next word. Each word is kept active in the buffer while their connections are explored for a common theme.
Query Terms are “dog-eared” for commonly associated links.
Each Term is Tagged and held in place for collective interpretive summary
A situational association is grouped for query and each connection is explored with a common context connection.
The cerebral cortex is a complex association network that stores the details of narrative stories from the active tab which was pulled.
A commonly associated situation is located in the cerebral cortex where it is highlighted and rechecked by each associated word cues before it is retrieved address is marked.
The image link accesses word library (pyramidal cortex) adds the label to the image accessed from the cortex and retagged to the hippocampus file folder.
The associated situation is identified and acquired by the frontal lobe which instructs the response to the question presented.
Image-word match is retrieved (pyramidal circuit) and expressed as the answer to the host.
I hope this simplified model has helped you to make sense of the basic operations and functions of perception.
Best Wishes my friend.
Greg E. Williams, MD
- Turner,S., McFarlane A & vander Kolk, B. (1996) The Therapeutic environment and new explorations in the
treatment of post-traumatc stress disorder. In Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Ovewhelming Experience on
Mind, Body and Society (eds. B. van der Kolk, A. McFarlane & L. Weisaeth) pp. 537-558.New York Guilford.