I’ve read a lot of good books describing how the mind works and this one is near the top of the list.
Andrew Newberg describes – with fascinating examples and studies – how we create our view of reality. Or to put it another way: our beliefs. This isn’t just about religion, though that is discussed in detail, but about how we create, adapt and persist our belief system and how that then shapes our perception of the world.
There’s some fascinating developmental stuff in there, such as how babies up to a certain age don’t believe an object exists when it’s outside of their perception.
He shows how a baby has twice as many neurons than an adult but way fewer connections. And in fact puts a positive light on the fact we lose brain cells as we age: we make too many connections as we grow, and pare away the ones that are not useful, resulting in a brain that can function better.
He discusses stages of belief such as how a child doesn’t have a moral dimension at first, understanding the difference between good and bad, i.e. as their actions affect them, but not between right and wrong, i.e. how their actions affect others – this is learnt roughly between the ages of 6 and 10, significantly influenced by the stories they are told, through which they learn to empathise.
Amusingly telling parents some of these things can result in an irrational response – “my baby recognises me”, “my baby is good and thoughtful”. But then we don’t like having our beliefs challenged, which is something he comes onto later in the book, discussing cognitive biases and how to become aware of the influences our beliefs have on our perceptions and corollary beliefs. This is also a good example of how we project our beliefs and way of thinking onto others, with an anthropomorphic bent, a bias to which we are particularly prone.
So our view of the world is not a passive observation. We filter and process information according to our beliefs, which are acquired through nature, nurture and so on, and we actively create our view of reality.
His discussion of transcendent states is just brilliant. He covers nuns in prayer, Buddhists in meditation, Pentecostals speaking in tongues and an atheist meditating on God. These all bring excellent insights into how we can change our view of reality, suspend some of our belief systems, and become more open to, and aware of, other possibilities.
In Buddhist meditations, for example, we see an increase of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part that “monitor[s] our ability to stay attentive and alert, helping us to focus on a task… and in planning and executing a task”. Most interestingly there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being. Also these practices can reinforce a person’s view of the world as any things experienced in that state are usually used to confirm ones belief system, and if you think on a belief for long enough it becomes real.
Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) has a rather different effect: there is decreased activity in the frontal lobes and a “surrender of conscious will” (practitioners talk of a surrender of control to God). It therefore allows the person to think in new and creative ways, to see things from a different perspective, and is a useful mind-state in changing beliefs, in transforming oneself. Interestingly, glossolaliacs have an increased activity in the parietal lobes implying they have a greater sense of personal self, although as they tended not to practise for as long as the meditators, this may change if they practise more.
Newberg talks of these transcendent experiences as giving a feeling of oneness with the universe, or a connectedness with everything. With this will come a sense of peacefulness, and clarity of purpose. This was described by the atheist who meditated.
One of his closing comments is a challenge to which I continue to aspire:
“Becoming a better believer is a difficult task to undertake, for re-wiring the brain requires patience and time. But if we succeed, to some small degree, then we will be better able to recognize our limitations, as well as our strengths. For this reason, I hold the deepest respect for those people who have had the courage to question and challenge their beliefs, for these are the individuals who have enriched our world through their creativity and willingness to grow.”