In this installment I would like to extend the concepts of belief systems into other areas that we are all familiar with but haven’t necessarily explored.

The data organization capability of the brain which defines the worldview or belief system of the individual isn’t just haphazardly developed, but is guided by the teaching and beliefs of parents and society. It is no coincidence that beliefs formed in childhood are ultimately the hardest to modify.

Belief systems are so important that I suspect there’s more force in the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny stories than many people give credit for. These stories (or others) are used by the child’s belief system and begin to acquaint it with this fundamental organizing principle. In particular what makes these stories so significant is that they are the first introduction to formulating ideas without any evidence whatsoever. To the cynic this might seem like it is simply promoting gullibility, but I suspect it is more fundamental. One of the key items in any belief system is ultimately the integration of cultural values, which similarly aren’t necessarily provided with evidence. Such values represent a set of intangible perspectives that are used to formulate the worldview of its members. In this context, it isn’t too difficult to see that parents may well begin with relatively simple stories and eventually progress to items of value in forming the belief systems of their offspring.

Many stories are intended to convey cultural values which are presented in a simple fashion. This is an important vehicle for conveying such information because a child’s mind tends to be more binary in viewing societal values. Stealing is bad. When one gets older, there tends to be a more nuanced view of such things, such as stealing is bad unless one is stealing food to feed your family. We may still think it is wrong, but it is understandable.

Therefore it is my contention that these stories and the teaching of values actually helps develop and strengthen the basic “framework” or data organization of the brain. In the same way that children are more receptive to learning languages, so are they receptive to having their belief systems shaped. It is on this basis that propagandists of every stripe have always asserted that if they can shape the child, they will own the adult.

As we get older, our belief systems can also be manipulated into being more receptive to change by creating circumstances that are intended to cast doubt and introduce new information for assessment. An example of this occurs with something like spending the night in the proverbial haunted house. At first our belief system is challenged by the idea of the haunted house, so we are psychologically conditioned to our personal version of such a thing. We may be skeptical or receptive, but our brains our now set to evaluate data from such an environment. To the receptive individual, every noise and cold spot will reinforce an existing belief, while to the skeptic this will tend to elicit an investigative response. This isn’t to say that both might not experience fear, but the overwhelming role of the belief system is the interpretation of whatever phenomenon is experienced and how it fits into the existing framework. Fear is a powerful motivating force in enabling the possibility of change in the individual belief system. However, the most critical element of this is having been conditioned initially by being told the house was haunted.

In some cases, it may be possible to change someone’s beliefs by presenting a sufficient amount of inexplicable data which causes a reevaluation and potential integration of the new information. This is the phenomenon usually observed with magicians even though they specifically inform you that their act is not magical. We are entertained by these people because it is a form of “belief illusion” similar to what is experience by our eyes in “optical illusions”. Basically we experience something that we know isn’t true, but challenges us to believe.

It is also the role of fear that introduces some of the stranger aspects of a belief system into our behavior. The lucky rabbit’s foot, a necklace or amulet, a particular ritual, etc are all intended to help us overcome uncertainty and fear by psychologically conditioning us to whatever event we are dealing with. While it doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual rationally believes that the rabbit’s foot is lucky, there is certainly an element of not wanting to risk the outcomes with analysis. It is this process of not wanting to “jinx” events that gives rise to many unusual or outlandish beliefs.

Without stretching the point too much, I think we can argue that the human desire for “perfection” (like organization, straight lines, tended gardens, etc.) are all external reflections of this organizing principle in our brains.

The Nature of Belief Systems
Belief Systems - Part 3