Thursday, June 25, 2009

Do You Believe?

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings To You AllBelief and the Brain
In recent months, there has been discussion in the blogosphere over the attributes and cognitive powers of the brain. This month, Clive Shepherd has completed a splendid series of posts on John Medina’s Brain Rules, documenting clearly his own interpretations of the book.

I have not yet read Brain Rules, but I’m grateful to Clive for his explicit summaries and interpretations. Whichever way you look on it, plainly, the brain is a wonderful organ.

My late comment on Clive’s post speculates that the aspects he analysed and reported from Medina’s book did not include an important feature of the brain, that being it’s power to believe. In this post I put forward some thoughts around the idea that the faculty of presumption, in the contexts of observation, perception and reason, is a feature of the brain that can shape the way we learn and also affect the way we think.

What is belief?

Beliefs are formed through our experiences from the moment of birth. Wikipedia describes ‘belief’ as, “the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.” It further explains that “mainstream psychology and related disciplines have traditionally treated belief as if it were the simplest form of mental representation and therefore one of the building blocks of conscious thought”.

Philosophies to do with belief are complex and varied. Some might even argue that belief is one of the cornerstones of philosophy. Many of the features that are associated with belief can also be attributed to, or have close counterparts in the strange and capricious emotion of trust.


The weight of authority can be a useful lever in forging belief but it can also be flawed. For as much as it may be argued that authority can be an influencing factor in learning, it is the action of the brain of the learner that permits an authoritative influence to be successful or otherwise.

History is strewn with examples of recalcitrant learners who earned the displeasure of their authoritative teachers. Yet authority has also fashioned and propagated belief, and learning through that belief, in the intelligent minds of many scholars. This has gone on for hundreds of years - some of it quite fallacious.

Misconception and erroneous belief

Teachers hope for learner minds that are pliable and mobile. In many disciplines, tutors select their students from young children, it being well known that suppleness of mind prevails in the young.

As a teacher, I’ve often been guilty of using a strategy that I call unteaching. Execution of this mode of persuasion entails dismantling possible misconception and seemingly erroneous belief in the mind of the learner.

A way to achieving this is brought about by revealing tactfully to the learner those aspects of their knowledge or beliefs that may be wanting or mistaken in some important detail. Once the major parts of the assumed learning obstacles are removed, the remnants are eradicated through the application of appropriate pedagogy.

Such action is nevertheless presumptive on the part of the teacher:
  1. that the original belief in the mind of the learner is flawed:

  2. that belief in the mind of the teacher is legitimate and authentic.
The presumption can take on an authoritative tone. Some look on it as imposed dogma rather than useful and principled guidance.

Whatever the interpretation, it’s the belief formed and held in the mind of the learner that has a powerful bearing on what is learnt and how that learning develops. This applies as much to a young child as to an experienced and mature employee in the workplace. The part that confidence plays in supporting belief is useful to learner and teacher.

Belief directs learning

If the learner’s belief is congruent to what's being taught, the teacher may have no problem. But if that belief is not aligned to what is taught a number of scenarios can arise:

– revelation by the learner in a new understanding

– active discussion about aspects of the learner's belief
(related to what's being learned)

– enlightenment of both learner and teacher through discussion
(sometimes the teacher learns more than the learner)

– no significant change in what the learner knows

– hardening of the learner's original belief.

Human perceptual psychology - believing is seeing

Clive reviews Medina’s Rule 10: Vision trumps all other senses.
He quotes, ”We do not see with our eyes. We see with our brains.
We actually experience our visual environment as a fully analysed opinion about what the brain thinks is out there.”

In short, our opinion of what exists is what we believe we see.

It relies on expectation, related to processes that occur in the higher levels of the brain. The perceptual experience initiated by what is observed is resolved by a complex series of processes in the peripheral and central nervous system.

The final interpretation is of a meaningful representation of observed events. Otherwise referred to as cognition, it involves memory and schema – a complex network of abstract mental structures that represent an understanding of what is perceived to exist.

Many so-called optical illusions draw on this aspect of perception. What is seen, interpreted and recognised through perception is believed.

The Ames Trapezoid, for instance is such an illusion in 3 dimensions. Another, in 2 dimensions, is the Fraser spiral shown below.

For as much as our perception tells us that we see a spiral, it takes a careful tracing of the loops with a finger to prove that the diagram is really a series of concentric circles – no spiral exists.

Fraser Spiral
Even then, we may not be convinced, and perhaps try the finger tracing test several times before conceding that what we think we see is just an illusion. Test it for yourself.
  • What do you think about belief as an aspect of the human brain?

  • What part does it play in learning?

  • Do you go through life testing your own beliefs?

  • Or do you accept the authoritative viewpoint of others?
( 2 ) << - related post

Ngā mihi nui - Best Wishes


V Yonkers said...

Often our beliefs are not challenged or we refuse to let others challenge our belief. The US after 9/11 did not allow for any dialogue about policies outside of that held by the authority. It was a very strange time as I think one of the strengths in the US has been the ability to test and challenge beliefs held in our society. Suppressing it could lead to societies like Nazi Germany in which people don't dare question what is taught by the authorities.

Having lived in various countries, speaking various languages, I always test out my "beliefs". As I learned the first time I was an exchange student in Holland, understanding others beliefs doesn't mean you have to accept it or believe in it yourself. But you won't know the boundaries of your own beliefs (and the assumptions from which you behave) until you have "tried on" others beliefs. I will either walk away with stronger beliefs or take on a new understanding.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

Isn't it strange that often belief is accompanied by denial in some form or other. This may be by authority in trying to suppress belief in others, or by proponents attempting to persuade others to believe something else.

I find that 'trust' is a mind-set that is closely bound to belief. In examining my ownership of trust I pass through a similar series of routines I use in order to confirm a belief.

It is probably no accident that prominent scientists who were associated with the development of nuclear weapons, including Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, tested their beliefs and their trust in authority at various stages of that series of experiments.

Catchya later

Linda Mitchell said...

I personally think the computer game thing is higly over rated in the past. I couldnt wait to get in long lines just to purchase an ebox, ninetineto. Today the games have gotten out of hand and present endangerment to humans. They are more complex and out of control. Why does everything have to be a game. I do not like this change we are heading to becuase we are forming human being who do not have empathy,