We think we have an independent ability to think and believe as we like, to know this or be convinced about that. But that’s not the whole story: our outlook is also shaped by our cultural context.
As we’ve seen , when enough people agree about what is true — whether they “know” it or are “convinced” of it — their agreement becomes a cultural belief system — for example, as reflected in a religion, country, neighborhood, business, athletic team, or other institution. Cultural belief systems are wired into the neural pathways of individual members, and as the culture coalesces, its belief system takes on a life of its own thorough a process known as “emergence.” As the emergent belief system is increasingly reflected in and reinforced by cultural institutions, it is increasingly patterned into the neural pathways of the culture’s members, where it defines individual and collective reality and sense of identity, The belief system becomes The Truth , defining what the group and its members know and are convinced of.
Throughout this process, whether the culture’s beliefs are true in any non-subjective sense loses relevance. The result is what physician and author Paul Singh refers to as “mass delusion”:
“[When a conviction moves from an individual to being widely held], its origins are rooted in a belief system rather than in an individual’s pathological condition. It is a mass delusion of the sort that poses no immediate threat to anyone or society. Mass delusions can become belief systems that are passed from generation to generation.”
The Great Illusion: The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)
For a dramatic example of this concept in action, consider an experience described by Jesse Jackson:
“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
Despite a lifetime of civil rights leadership, Jackson’s cultural neural conditioning betrayed him. What he experienced was not just personal to him; it conformed to a cultural belief system. The particular “mass delusion” involved has been confirmed by clinical research.
“Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, recently showed how beliefs help people’s brains categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.
“When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala — the brain’s panic button — was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was no difference in the response between black and white people.”
Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005)
When cultural beliefs are not constantly reinforced — by cultural norms of thought, language, practice, etc. — the neural networks that support them can weaken, allowing opportunity for new beliefs.
“‘Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain,’ says [Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University] ‘If you challenge [beliefs] by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you’re going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other.’”
This helps to explain, for example, why religious believers are more likely to “fall away” if they are “out of fellowship.” Or what can happen to a student off to college, a world traveler, or an immigrant. It also helps to explain why leaders and despots alike can manipulate brain networks to create cultural belief systems to fit their desired ends:
“In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.
“The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through a much more intensified version of that process.
“The first step is to isolate a person and control what information they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.
“Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to fall back on things they know well – stereotypes and simple ways of thinking,” says Taylor.
“This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile arena, especially in times of anxiety.”
More next time.