The Formation Of Beliefs

We organise our beliefs in a number of ways and create those beliefs through learning and recognition of symbols or representations that are stored in conscious and subconscious memory.

Our belief about a particular represented fact, then, is the stored representation of that fact and this belief we now hold alters or impacts on our future behaviour in relation to what we have learned. However, not all behaviours come via an organism’s belief system. Numerous behaviours could be aid to be instinctual. A magneto-some bacteria for example, always seeks alignment with the earth’s magnetic filed and so in the northern hemisphere are always guided north and so to deeper waters, away from those shallow oxygen rich waters that would be harmful to them. Instinctual behaviours for you and I may be associated with the flight, fight or freeze instinct held around danger and fear. This is a part of the complex structure of our representational system gained through associative learning. Even though flight, fight and freeze are instinctual, rather than learned, the associated triggers are learned. For example, I may express one or all of these reactions to the sight of a snake coiled on my path, but to a herpetologist, the sight of a snake would fill them with appreciation for the reptile and its beauty.

The Structure Of Belief

We structure our belief system through experience with memory layered onto memory and stored for subconscious retrieval when required, triggered again, by associated memory. Our beliefs are linked to our inner feelings, thoughts, desires and emotions. For this reason, people with the same beliefs, may have different behaviours. Thought arises from an infinite filed of possibility and so, our representation of beliefs have the possibility of being retrieved to fit any number of situations, but the likelihood of such retrieval is also infinite in a field of probability. Our beliefs then, must be stored internally, in a systematic structure of thought, language and symbols. Individually the thought processes of that individual echo such structure. For example, a small child who has never encountered a snake is unlikely to experience thoughts of danger, when a snake is encountered, the yelled warnings from a parent become a linguistic memory and the coiled image of the snake, may imprint as a symbol of danger from that time. It is likely that any representation of a snake, word, symbol or sight, is believed to represent danger for that child. That a snake is dangerous becomes a belief.

Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson (1), suggest that we represent our thoughts as a map, rather than through linguistic representation. A map-like representational system would allow for one change in belief to result in a cascade of changes to linked beliefs. For example, as I learn that not all snakes are dangerous, I may represent only those with certain colours to be in that category. This may allow me to think in colour rather than a linguistic representation of reptiles or I might learn that poisonous snakes have small heads, so my belief then is around the symbols of small-headed snakes as dangerous. Through my learning, my beliefs changes and as represented by my map, a series of beliefs alter simultaneously and without further conscious input. My map in these representations may be pictorial or linguistic, and may include colour or symbols. Change one representation and many change.

Behaviour & Belief

People’s behaviour does not necessarily indicate their beliefs. While behaviours are impacted by our representations of what we believe is our reality, such behaviours are also impacted by past experience and the interpretations we construct. A person’s mental state also impacts on outward behaviour. There is a school of philosophy that interprets people’s behavioural disposition as an indication of their belief, but does not appear to take into account the differences in people’s inner representations through desire, and emotions, which may be impacted by environment. For example, I may have similar beliefs to you, but while at a meeting of snake charmers and herpetologists, I may be reluctant to talk about my fear of snakes and so my outward behaviour gives nothing away about my beliefs that snakes are dangerous. So observable behaviour is not a good indicator of inner beliefs and while we may be able to predict the likelihood of someone’s behaviour if we know their beliefs, such behaviour may not be evident in every circumstance. We establish belief through our perceptions about a particular circumstance. For example we may have a belief that we will be bitten should we get too close to that snake.

Beliefs & Sub-beliefs

Experience is the foregoer to the creation of belief. The belief so obtained, is taken from the result of having the experience, however there is a difference between acceptance and belief. We can choose to accept the validity of a particular event or experience. For example, we can listen to a story and choose to believe its authenticity or not. We then have the choice of believing and so creating a belief, which will then affect our behaviour at some point in the future. Of course we have already created a sub-belief around the story’s authenticity, which also impacts our behaviour (we choose to disbelieve) but in that way, our choice is our acceptance and our belief is that it is untrue. We may have heard the story and accepted it without choosing consciously to do so and so our belief circumvents conscious acceptance. In Australia today, many people accept the story that refugees as asylum seekers should be known as “boat people” and that “boat people” are “queue jumpers” and so not welcome. The public forms the belief around the labels applied rather than specific stories of escape from torture and genocide. Once such beliefs are implanted and reinforced through fear (there will be terrorists among them) the beliefs are difficult to ever change, because those with the formed belief that this is dangerous to accept “boat people,” will have to defend their ego. Ego defence reinforces the belief no matter what evidence is presented to invalidate it.

The Filter Of Perception

The Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, the Psychiatrist’s standard reference, characterises delusion as beliefs. Our linguistic representation of belief alters, discretely with age and learning. Most people would agree that a table is solid, however with an understanding of quantum physics and learning that gluons, the centre of protons are actually mass-less, the quantum physicist would say that the table is not solid at all, but is in fact a vibrating group of atoms as is the rest of the cosmos. To that end, everyone’s belief depends, to a large degree on one’s related beliefs and as everyone’s experiences are different, even though we understand the same things, our beliefs, like our thoughts, can never be exactly the same. Everything is filtered through our perception of reality, discretely coloured by our sensory filters. In this way, our beliefs are manufactured by what we sense as reality rather than, necessarily, what is actually real to someone else.

(1) The Philosophy of Mind and Cognition, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1996

Author's Bio: 

John A Allan is a Counsellor and certified Life Coach. He has authored several books relating to cancer management and the organisation of life skills to affect behaviour. His Coaching and Counselling blog is at www.mindimage.com.au and he also has a blog dealing with cancer management at www.cancercauseandeffect.com