Brain and Belief provides an interdisciplinary look at how the human mind forms beliefs and how these beliefs can become rigid, dogmatic, and dangerous. We explore the roots of bigotry, extremism, fanaticism, and terrorism within the framework of current knowledge and emerging science.
We also look at the more subtle effects of belief on political movements and how public sentiment is manipulated by media, marketing, propaganda, and other persuasion methods. We use vivid examples from history, current events, literature, philosophy, culture, and religion as well as psychological case profiles, to illustrate the many ways that belief interacts powerfully with every aspect of society and daily life.
We take readers on a journey to learn how beliefs are formed
We begin with a summary of basic brain mechanisms related to belief formation. We explore how the mind filters and selects ideas from vast amounts of stimuli to create stories to explain reality; how neural networks weave a tapestry of associations into meaningful mental models, and how an individual’s worldview develops over time.
Scientists are beginning to understand how the mind makes sense of outside reality: how we process, categorize, and distort sensory information and apply interpretations in order to function in the world and cope with new challenges and unfamiliar situations.
We review the scientific disciplines involved in the study of belief, with a focus on how research from the biological and evolutionary sciences overlaps with behavioral and social psychology. Scientists are just beginning this stage of inquiry and a vast realm of knowledge still needs to be synthesized.
For over 60 years, Social Psychology research has shown how easy it is for us to lie to ourselves; to think we know more than we do and to believe that we are more competent than we are; to deny our actions when they lead to unexpected disaster; to justify our mistakes and misdeeds; and to project onto others flaws that we are unconsciously ashamed of in ourselves.
Ongoing research from Social Neuroscience is undergirding previous social psychology findings on cognitive dissonance, group think, peer pressure, denial, projection, conformity and obedience, the effects of group membership, stigma and status, and how dehumanization can lead to cruelty and injustice toward disempowered groups.
Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience (SCAN) research is shedding light on the mechanisms that underlie these human tendencies: how our brain has built-in biases and blind spots; how we reconstruct “reality” from rudimentary sensory data and confabulate to fill in any gaps; how a sense of certainty and the “feeling of knowing” are functionally separate from the activity in the brain when we actually know something; how our decisions, actions and volition are influenced by implicit, unconscious cognition.
Functional scan imaging and other technologies are providing us with direct access to brain processes. Mapping the activity and structure of the brain has given us unprecedented insight into human nature: we can watch the brain develop and respond to stimuli, and see how a mind can flourish, learn, and imagine. We can also observe how our minds can be damaged by the trauma and neglect that lead to impaired thinking and behavior.
Cognitive neuroscientists are using advanced tools to pinpoint areas of the brain that are activated during moral dilemmas and decision-making; to study how the mind creates categories and how the brain can distort perceptions and memory leading to false assumptions about other people and have circumscribed false beliefs.