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HOW THE BRAIN BELIEVES IN THINGS THAT CAN'T BE SEEN

Dr Samantha Brooks

The festive season is upon us again, where people demonstrate their faith. 

But what can neuroscience tell us about how the brain believes in things that cannot be seen?

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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Christmas is a time for faith in hope and love among family and friends. We adorn our houses with beautiful lights and decorations at this time of year to remind us that life is a celebration and not all darkness and gloom! Christmastime in the Southern Hemisphere is significantly milder, warmer and lighter than in the North, but there is still darkness to be aware of, in the form of mass inequality, crime and hardship. However, during a Capetonian Christmastime, we witness many people’s faith in what can be achieved to make others’ lives better, for example with food and clothing banks in supermarkets and people making friends with strangers. And while auld acquaintaince may be forgot and never brought to mind,  we need not forget that it pays to have faith in people doing good things for others. Yet, having faith in the intrinsic goodness of human nature is not so easy to do, because it cannot be seen or proven, and belief in the goodness of humans is in contrast to the many stories of tragedy and corruption that bombard us in mass media. So, with all these things considered, how do our brains allow faith in being good and doing good for others, and faith in other intangible things at Christmas time?

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Thankfully, the brain functions as a Bayesian probability-testing machine – according to neuroscientists – which means that it uses memory, the brain’s hardware, to collect information about events in one’s life over time. By collecting such information from the past we can build a picture – or make a prediction – of what will probably happen in the future.  And as our brains collect more detailed information, we form a picture in our mind, which allows us to make decisions for our life and the future that has not yet happened.   In other words, having faith in things we cannot perceive, like the future, or things that don’t seem to physically exist, is built on the fact that our brains create stories from common human events that guide our present actions. This could be why faith in deities, such as those described in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, have stood the test of testing times over the centuries.  This faith is built on a common story collected from many past generations – that are stored in our memories and celebrated traditionally in a similar way year on year.

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According to Steven Johnson, in a highly recommended New York Times article about Artificial Intelligence entitled ‘The Human Brain is a Time Traveler’, the brain “left to its own devices … resorts to one of its most emblematic tricks, maybe one that helped make us human in the first place. It time travels.” By this, Johnson means that we often alternate between thinking about our past and what we would like to happen in the future – during resting state periods in our brain’s functioning.  These resting state periods are driven by past, common events, and allow our brain to conceptualise future plans that effectively strengthen our faith in things that we cannot perceive. Resting state networks include the default mode (‘day-dreaming’) and the executive control network (‘goal-setting/planning ahead’). Interestingly, most of our brain function is engaged in factors that we cannot consciously perceive – for example, regulating our internal bodily systems that keep us biologically balanced, or being able to imagine things that don’t exist physically – like Father Christmas’s resting state (does he ever rest?!)!

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So it’s not actually surprising that we are able to have faith in the supernatural and things that we can’t easily see at Christmastime, given the way our brain functions at rest.  And neurotheology (first coined by Aldous Huxley in his novel the Island) is a branch of neuroscience that aims to examine the neural processes of those who have relgious experiences.  For example, religious or spiritual people who have faith in the consciously unperceivable sometimes experience a dissolution of time, spiritual awe, oneness with the universe, ecstatic trance, enlightenment and altered states of consciousness – all factors that can be related to differences in brain function. It is unlikely that one particular brain region is the God Spot, but it is rather more likely that with enough previous exposure to stories from various religious texts, or other festive stories, our brain function is better able to imagine such religious factors that we cannot physically see. Many of us were taught about the stories of Christmas at school and so our brains can easily predict what is going to happen at this time of the year. And for people who have faith in God at Christmastime, the brain is re-telling a story about the predicted goodness of the human spirit. So with all this in mind, while we are resting this Christmas, let’s all have faith in making the state of the Nation a little more merry and bright!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year Harfielders!

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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