The power of belief


Excerpt from Why we believe what we believe: Uncovering our biological need for meaning, spirituality and truth by Andrew Newberg, MD author of Why God won’t go away.

Mr. Wright wasn’t expected to live through the night. His body was riddled with tumors, his liver and spleen were enlarged, his lungs were filled with fluid, and he needed an oxygen mask to breathe. But when Mr. Wright heard that his doctor was conducting cancer research with a new drug called Krebiozen, which the media were touting as a potential miracle cure, he pleaded to be given treatments. Although it was against protocol, Dr. Klopfer honored Mr. Wright’s request by giving him an injection of the drug, then left the hospital for the weekend, never expecting to see his patient again. But when he returned on Monday morning, he discovered that Mr. Wrights’s tumors had shrunk to half their original size, something that even radiation treatments could not have accomplished.

“Good God!” thought Dr. Klopfer. “Hasve we finally found the silver bullet–a cure for cancer?” Unfortunately, an examination of the other test patients showed no changes at all. Only Mr. Wright had improved. WWas this a rare case of spontaneous remission, or was some other unidentified mechanism at work? The doctor continued to give injections to his recovering patient, and after ten days practically all signs of the disease had disappeared. Wright returned home, in perfect health.

Two months later, the Food and Drug Administration reported that the experiments with Krebiozen were proving ineffective. Mr. Wright heard about the reports and immediately became ill. His tumors returned, and he was readmitted to the hospital. Now, Dr. Klopfer was convinced that the patient’s belief in the drug’s effectiveness had originally healed him. To test his theory, he decided to lie, telling Mr. Wright about a “new, super-refined, double-strength product” that was guaranteed to produce better results. Mr. Wright agreed to try this “new” version of what he believed had healed his tumors before, but in reality, Dr. Klopfer gave him injections of sterile water.

Once again, Mr. Wright’s recovery was dramatic. His tumors disappeared, and he resumed his normal life–until the newspapers published an announcement by the American Medical Association under the headline “Nationwide Tests Show Krebiozen to Be a Worthless Drug in Treatment of Cancer.”

After reading this, Mr. Wright fell ill again, returned to the hospital, and died two days later. In a report published in the Journal of Projective Techniques, Dr. Klopfer concluded that when the power of Wright’s optimistic beliefs expired, his resistance to the disease expired as well.

[…] Beliefs govern nearly every aspect of our lives. They tell us how to pray and how to vote, whom to trust and whom to avoid; and they shape our personal behaviors and spiritual ethics throughout life. But once our beliefs are established, we rarely challenge their validity, even when faced with contradictory evidence. Thus, when we encounter others who appear to hold differing beliefs, we tend to dismiss or disparage them. Furthmore, we have a knee-jerk tendency to reject others who are not members of our own group. Even when their belief systems are fundamentally similar to ours, we still feel that they are significantly different. […] Ignorance is only partly to blame. A more significant reason is that our brains are instinctually prone to reject information that does not conform to our prior experience and knowledge. Simply put, old beliefs, like habits, die hard.

[…] The study of human beliefs often raises unsettling issues, since most people are not aware that many fo our beliefs are based on incomplete assumptions about the world. How, then, can beliefs be so powerful that they can heal us, or so destructive that they can cause us to suffer and die?

[…] I realized that if I was to have any hope of understanding why people believe what they do, I would have to study the part of us that actually does the believing–the human mind–for no matter what we see, feel, think, or do, it must all be processed through the brain. After years of study, I have come to see that a profound chasm exists between the world “out there” and our internal consciousness, and that this fundamental disconnection prevents us from ever truly “knowing” reality. Still, we seem to have little choice but to trust our neural perceptions.

We are born to believe because we have no other alternative. Because we can never get outside ourselves, we must make assumptions–usually lots of them–to make sense of the world “out there.” The spiritual beliefs we adhere to and the spiritual experiences we can have are also influenced by our neural circuitry and its limitations.

…prejudice seems rooted in human nature, for the human brain has a propensity to reject any belief that is not in accord with one’s own view. However, each person also has the biological power to interrupt detrimental, derogatory beliefs and generate new ideas. The new ideas, in turn, can alter the neural circuitry that governs how we behave and what we believe. Our beliefs may be static, but they aren’t necessarily static. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the workings of a child’s mind, which is constantly struggling to develop and maintain a stable worldview. Furthermore, children’s and adult’s belief systems are continually being altered by other people’s beliefs.

The adult human brain is childlike in another way; we automatically assume that what other people tell us is true, particularly if the idea appeals to our deep-seated fantasies and desires. Advertisers often take advantage of this neural tendency, and even though consumer advoates and some laws have helped to level the playing field, the general rule “Buyer beware” still prevails.[…]

We are born with a natural tendency to trust what others say, and we certainly can’t take the time to question every piece of information we receive. Think how long it would take to verify even half the claims that are made in just a single magazine. […]

Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be? – Carl Sagan

[…] In medical research, I feel it is wise to be skeptical about new treatments because we are dealing with people’s health and lives. I need to see a good amount of persuasive evidence and data before I’m comfortable trying a new procedure. However, my skepticism can ultimately lead to my becoming open-minded and trying a new treatment, which can lead to better health for my patients. If I were to apply this clinical skepticism to everything, I’d be living in a constant state of doubt, which is a very inefficient way to live on a day-to-day basis. Marriage is a perfect example; at some point in every intimate relationship we have to abandon our doubts and believe that our partner will continue to be trustworthy in the future. In other words, we have to have faith in ourselves, and in other people with whom we interact regularly, especially those we love.

Mr. Wright had to have faith in his doctor, and Dr. Klopfer had to have faith in the power of his patient’s belief. Such faith transcends reason, rationality, and skepticism, and has the power to heal, but there is nothing magical about it. In fact, you can evoke placebo effects in mice and other animals. […] studies have found that injections of harmless substances–even water–can trigger the suppression of tumors in rats (this is known as a learned immunosuppression response), but there is also evidence that these conditioned rats have a weaker ability to resist tumors that occur at a later date. This may indicate that our positive beliefs might help to postpone the inevitable decline of health.

To a very large extent men and women are a product of how they define themselves. as a result of combination of innate ideas and the intimate influences of the culture and environment we grow up in, we come to have beliefs about the nature of being human. These beliefs penetrate to a very deep level of our psychosomatic systems, our minds and brains, our nervous systems, our endocrine systrems, and even our blood and sinews. We act, speak, and think accordingly to these deeply held beliefs and belief systems. – Jeremy W. Hayward, author and physicist

Synonyms for Belief: Opinion, conviction, confidence, faith, trust, assumption, expectation, certainty, persuasion, assurance, acceptance, doctrine, dogma, tenet, principle, creed, supposition, attitude, allegation, knowledge, interpretation, representation, judgement, argument, advice, estimation, passion, sincerity, hope, theory, premise, possibility, probability, conjecture, hypothesis, worldview, guess.


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