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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Lebedev

What Shapes Your Reality? Unveiling the Intricate Universe of Beliefs


As a young medical student engrossed in psychiatry, I found the curriculum's approach to thought disorders rather straightforward. This framework, which neatly divides thought disorders into overvalued ideas, obsessions, and delusions, was invaluable for initially navigating the complexities of mental phenomena. However, as I delved into real-world practice, the chasm between textbook theory and life's intricate puzzles widened dramatically.

Take diagnosing delusions, for example. Diagnostic manuals describe delusions as fixed beliefs unswayed by conflicting evidence. Yet, what if these 'delusional beliefs' resonate with a larger community, echoing certain religious or cultural sentiments? Or what about those convinced of government surveillance, a notion teetering between paranoia and genuine concern in our digital age?

Although classification systems serve as vital frameworks for organising thoughts and beliefs, their improper application can lead to severe consequences. This point can be illustrated in the context of my own homeland. Consider the case of psychiatry in the Soviet Union, where the diagnosis of 'sluggish schizophrenia' was exploited as a tool to silence dissenting voices. Individuals were categorically labeled with 'delusions of reformism,' a move predicated on the erroneous belief that their opposition to the regime was, by its very nature, a sign of mental pathology.

Why Should You Care?

Belief research is intricate. Cognitive scientists talk about "prior beliefs" or "priors" – our basic assumptions about the world. These priors adapt with new information, evolving into "posterior beliefs". Though this Bayesian perspective is an oversimplification, it provides a gateway into more complex models.

The Science of Studying Beliefs

Studying beliefs is far from simple; it involves a plethora of methods and cognitive frameworks. Cognitive scientists often use the terms "prior beliefs" or "priors" to describe our foundational assumptions about the world. These priors get updated when we encounter new information, resulting in what's called "posterior beliefs". This is the most simplistic way to look at this from a statistical standpoint. But the real models we use in the research are way more complex.

The Brain: A Hierarchical "Inference Machine"

Our brain isn't just a static organ; it's a dynamic, hierarchical "inference machine", according to some modern scientists. The prefrontal cortex, for instance, acts as a filter, contextualising signals from lower-level circuits like the amygdala, which is responsible for immediate, albeit crude, reactions to threatening stimuli. Normally, this system achieves a state of equilibrium essential for everyday functioning. However, in certain conditions, persistent "warning signals" from the amygdala can overwhelm the neocortex, leading to a skewed perception of reality.

Predictive Coding Framework (example of visual perception) | Credit: Stefanics et al., 2014

Complexity/Simplicity In Perception

Remember, our cognition isn't engineered for objective reality. Our brains are the product of evolutionary pressures that favoured immediate survival over nuanced comprehension.

This evolutionary legacy influences our perception, often making our minds vulnerable to a variety of cognitive distortions and biases present in all of us.

The Fine Line: Normal vs Pathological Beliefs

How do we discern if a belief is pathological? It's less about WHAT you believe in, but rather HOW you believe:

➤ Flexibility: Normal beliefs tend to be more flexible and open to modification in light of new information, whereas pathological beliefs are often immutable and unyielding.

➤ Context: The social, cultural, and historical context in which a belief exists can significantly influence its classification. What is considered a 'normal' belief in one setting may be seen as 'pathological' in another and vice versa. For instance, the widespread acceptance of destructive beliefs in Nazi Germany showcases the chilling adaptability of 'norms.'

➤ Impact on Functioning: A critical factor in diagnosing a belief as pathological is the extent to which it impairs an individual's daily functioning. For example, if a belief causes someone to withdraw socially or is associated with severe anxiety—as is often the case with obsessions, where people may, in fact, remain critical of their disruptive nature.

➤ Emotional Valency: A normal belief typically doesn't elicit extreme emotional responses, while a pathological belief may result in disproportionate levels of fear, anger, or distress.

➤ Persistence and Pervasiveness: Pathological beliefs are often persistent despite evidence to the contrary and can pervade multiple areas of life, whereas normal beliefs may change or become less prominent over time.

Religious Beliefs

Religious beliefs hold a unique position in the spectrum of human ideas. For millions, they provide essential moral guidance and spiritual support. However, when intertwined with specific personality traits and social contexts, these beliefs can also take dark turns, manifesting in acts of religious fanaticism, violence, and discrimination. Religious beliefs are a particular example of the notion that the content of ideas and their grounding in objectively recorded reality is not most crucial aspect defining "normality" of beliefs.

A Case For Non-conformity

In this digital age, where the smartphone is the new Gutenberg press, the power to influence minds has never been more potent, yet precarious. We, born into the luxury of instant gratification, often forget that every coin has two sides. On one hand, the rapid spread of information has democratised knowledge, giving voice to those who were previously marginalised. On the other hand, it also serves as a breeding ground for misinformation, polarising ideologies, and unprecedented 'cancel culture'.

So, where do non-conformist beliefs fit into this? Interestingly, they serve as the double-edged sword that can either cut through the Gordian knot of societal delusions or deepen the wounds of divisiveness. The key lies in the wielder of this sword—each individual's cognitive integrity. Are you willing to question not just others but also yourself? Are you open to the idea that your long-held beliefs might be incorrect? Can you differentiate between skepticism and cynicism? These are not just questions but signposts on the road to intellectual emancipation.

Non-conformists who dare to question the status quo serve as the antibodies of a society, fighting off the infections of blind allegiance — quite a feat considering our neurological wiring inclines us towards conformity. They are often the ones willing to face ostracism and ridicule to stand up for what they believe could be a higher truth. And in this era of 'fake news' and echo chambers, their role is not just important—it's imperative.

So, next time, before dismissing someone as a mere conspiracy theorist, consider this: they're humans, just like you, craving validation and respect. And let's not forget that some ideas once branded as "conspiracies" have later been validated. Cases in point include the CIA's MK-Ultra program and the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes. These examples serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us that today's implausible theories could be tomorrow's accepted facts. The takeaway? Maintain a balanced skepticism and keep an open mind.

Final Thoughts

Beliefs are multifaceted, influenced by diverse factors ranging from neurobiology to societal norms. While technological advancements like brain imaging offer deeper insights, no single perspective can fully encompass beliefs' complexity.

As we navigate the labyrinth of a post-truth world, it becomes crucial to equip ourselves with the tools to differentiate between constructive and destructive beliefs. Striving for a nuanced understanding is not just admirable—it's a societal necessity.

Remember, it's admirable to hold your beliefs firmly, but an even greater virtue is to be open to changing them. The ability to revisit your beliefs in light of new evidence is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intellectual maturity and emotional intelligence. After all, the goal is not to be "right" but to get closer to the "truth," which is often complex and multi-faceted. So, stay curious, stay skeptical, and most importantly, stay human.

What are your thoughts on the complexities of beliefs? Do share in the comments below! If you found this article insightful, don't forget to like, share, and subscribe for more thought-provoking content.

© Dr. Alexander Lebedev | MD PhD

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