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Why do We Believe What We Believe?
Kris Notaro   Sep 22, 2010   Ethical Technology  

Why do people believe different paradigms and memes over others? At this point in time there are a number of theories that can be utilized to answer this question but they remain crude in nature.

Several views suggest that brain regions and neurotransmitters are responsible for the valuing of one concept over another. According to modern neuroscience a few crucial neurotransmitters play a central role in mood and belief. They include dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine.(5)(7) For example, abnormal dopamine levels in particular can lead to schizophrenia which we can attribute to the unusual difficulty of people who already understand a certain paradigm of knowledge to believe in another. Brain regions and critical periods also play a role.(7)

Figuring out why people believe in irrational concepts is a rather hard challenge. Homo sapiens are socially networked together, teaching each other stories that can be said to be false like the idea of God, concepts that are somewhat true like “treat others the way you want to be treated,” and paradigms that are said to be scientific theories like the theory of relativity. This network of telling stories about reality seems to resemble the very complex nature of the human brain.

The question of meaning, purpose and existence can take on many forms. In our developed countries, however, the scientific method, critical thinking, and the notion of the theory of everything are our leading paradigms of knowledge. Things can work completely out of tune, but can also work as intended like a well put together orchestra. Science has replaced the idea of God for the skeptic and critical thinker. When modern rationality governs the human brain we find that God has no place in this orchestra.

Nature versus nurture must play a role, because irrational memes/concepts propagate within cultures, they just don’t spring up from nature necessarily. However, it has been argued that our brains are hardwired to be gullible in the sense that they have been designed through evolution to believe in simplistic stories like the story of God.(2) Doxastic Voluntarism is a philosophical concept which states that people have voluntary control over what they believe in.(4) However, this can be argued against by a recent study of people with brain tumors who needed to have the tumors removed. The study showed that certain regions of the brain play a large role in spiritual belief.

Dave Munge of SEED magazine writes about how the brain may be susceptible to religion because of survival benefits.

“[It is argued] that cooperation is the key. Cooperation is clearly beneficial for human social groups in hunting, defense, child-rearing, and many other survival behaviors. Religion, they say, is a way of reinforcing the principles that join members of a group. Brembs points out that observing a religious ritual like a rain dance allows communities to identify loyal members and punish those who don’t seem to be contributing to the group.”

If the above is correct it would explain why leading research points to areas of the brain that may be hardwired for spirituality. Research of the left inferior parietal lobule and the right angular gyrus that contained tumors revealed that after surgery, the patients were more apt to believe in out of body experiences and spiritual occurrences. The conclusion that can be drawn from this research suggests that these two brain regions play a role in body ownership and spirituality. Brain lesions in the left inferior parietal lobule and the right angular gyrus show us that even without voluntary beliefs in “God experiences,” the brain itself loses something vital for critical thinking. If patients then lose the ability to critically think of their new experiences as being false illusions brought on by brain damage, these findings become quite important. (1)(2)

While nurture is a huge influence on the brain and the complexities that allow for irrational and rational beliefs, an understanding of neurons and neurotransmitters can help out. The Critical Period concept shows us that during certain periods of brain development, certain beliefs can take root. In order to undo these beliefs, the brain must use its plasticity. Memes and irrational concepts propagate within cultures because of the malleability that the brain allows. However, Doxastic Voluntarism shows us that mentally healthy people can in fact change their minds about beliefs in the supernatural. As people get older this plasticity is lessoned but still exists. It consists of making new neural connections and stronger synaptic bonds. (4)(7)

One can make the argument that people accept certain memes over others mainly because of what they are taught they will get out of believing them. If we apply instrumental conditioning (similar to classical conditioning) where we replace behavior with belief, the consequence would be, for example, that belief in god leads to eternal life in heaven. Or we can make the claim that “god experiences” lead to a warm feeling in the “heart and minds” of those who believe God is there for them. Therefore, they believe and act accordingly to what the meme’s reward is: eternal life and/or a good feeling.

In a conversation I had recently with a professor of psychology, we both agreed that a modification of the Critical Period concept is probably the primary reason why people in today’s culture believe in God. This would entail that the critical period for people to take on a belief in God would extend to adolescents and young adults. I personally started to question the existence of God in middle school where Prof. A. started to question her faith during high school. We are both agnostic/atheist primarily because of these experiences early in our brain development. We both accept modern paradigms of science over religion. (8)

Neuroscience has shown that specific brain regions, synoptic bonds, and neurotransmitters influence people to believe one concept over another. Philosophy , sociology, and psychology demonstrate how people can take on certain beliefs because of critical periods of learning, choice (Doxastic Voluntarism), cooperation, and instrumental conditioning.  Each of these pressures on the brain can lead to the propagation of concepts/memes. There are no definitive schemes which explain why we believe what we believe as a society, culture, and world.  However I would argue that in the healthy brain that all these reasons are interconnected, from brain regions, to simplistic mythical stories. 

Rationality, as hard as it is to come by (and define), might be explained by the above interconnectivity as the brain acts homeostatic in nature.  Brilliant minds have believed ideas outside of science and contributed to science at the same time, but when the brain is actively homeostatic, to me, it seems that the ability to believe in the scientific method is amplified.  One can say that I am trying to make the claim in this article that believing in scientific paradigms and the scientific method is an example of rationality that has both nature and nurture reasons behind them, which will be explained in the near future through science.






(5) McGraw, J. (2004). Brain and Belief. Pleasantville: BooksJustBooks.


(7) Bear, M, Connors, B, & Paradiso, M. (2007). Neuroscience: exploring the brain. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

(8) Interview. Psychology Professor, Central Connecticut State University, 2010


Kris Notaro served as Managing Director of the IEET from 2012 to 2015. He is currently an IEET Rights of the Person Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


> “Science has replaced the idea of God for the skeptic and critical thinker. “

Those who used to be non-critically-thinking agnostics but newly religious will say that it was their critical thinking that led them to where they are today.

The scientific method however has never led anyone to god…

Mediatation leds to God!

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“Why do We Believe What We Believe?”
Because we’re barely sentient, largely irrational, illogical, mostly dumb and unthinking primates, that’s why. You really can explain a lot of these things by sheer stupidity. You really can.


Do you think there is any useful distinction between “the Critical Period concept” and the familiar process of Imprinting?

Imprinting is very similar to the critical period, however in in this article the critical period for brain development has been modified to young adults when it comes to beliefs.  what is hardwired in the human brain does not necessarily have to stick like imprinting, but probably has a major impact on when people believe by adulthood.

Hi Kris,

I’m not certain that I understand your response, but I think I want to question some of your assumptions, if that’s OK with you.

First, what “modification” are you talking about?

What aspect of imprinting, or a critical period, needs to be “modified”, or indeed, could be “modified”, regarding its influence upon the acquisition of a cultural, social, & familial belief system of a “religious” nature?

It is my understanding that imprinting is not an aspect of the brain that demonstrates “hardwiring”. A hardwired response would be better described as any type of instinctual capacity; wouldn’t it?

Imprinting is a much more fluid, and even sometimes accidental, occurrence; as demonstrated by the famous Konrad Lorenz experiments with goslings that imprinted upon a kneeling human as their maternal figure.

Lorenz’ experiments also demonstrated the temporal aspect of the imprint process. Imprinting (of whatever type) occurs when the unfolding nervous system has reached that specific stage of development where it becomes possible to scan and acquire the specific persistent neurological association that is triggered by the (hopefully) appropriate external stimulus. There is a definite “window of opportunity”.

Second, . . . I think that by the time of the temporal range of “young adulthood”, the opportunity to lay down an imprint for a belief system would be long gone. At that late stage, we must be in the realm of what is commonly regarded as a process of regular education.

If it occurs at all, don’t we observe in our culture that the informal and critical process of indoctrination and environmental immersion regarding belief systems often begins even before the child begins any formal schooling?

What is your assumption about when the typical individual is primed for such a bond? For such an imprint? When do you understand the natural “critical period” for this to begin? How long do you assume it lasts?

The old Jesuit maxim claims that at the end of the first seven years the die has been irrevocably cast, but of course that depends upon the strength of the imprint that has transpired.

By the way, I am a Deist. And I am very fond of the “scientific method” as well, which I do not find to be antithetical to a belief in the concept of “God”.

I do not share the same concept of god that the various corporate and puerile world religions are selling, to be sure. By ridiculing them, a very easy task, you demonstrate nothing of any superior percipience regarding the nature of reality.

The current scientific explanation for the existence of this particular Universe is that there was a Big Bang whose origin(s) are fundamentally unknowable and unrepeatable because they must have been the result of the initial condition(s) before that Big Bang, and therefore outside of SpaceTime.

By definition, any set of conditions that is not subject to any degree of control of initial conditions, and which cannot be subjected to repeated experimentation, is therefore not susceptible to the Scientific Method.

The validity of the scientific method evaporates near the boundary of the Big Bang. As far as science is concerned, according to its own guiding paradigm, any speculation it may offer about the preceding conditions to the Big Bang has about as precious little predictive power as does any reference to the command; “Let there be Light!”


Thanks for a great article.  I am particularly interested in learning more about the Critical Period.  I am from a large family that now has 4 atheists and 5 fundamentalist Christians.  Everyone formed their opinion about religion between the age of 16-23.  And no one has changed their opinion since. I also had a series of friends who joined Scientology, or the Moonies, when they were 20-21.  That age range seems to be very susceptible.

AmbassadorZot, Imprinting and critical periods are similar. Critical periods, to quote Wikipedia “In general, a critical period is a limited time in which an event can occur, usually to result in some kind of transformation. A “critical period” in developmental psychology and developmental biology is a time in the early stages of an organism’s life during which it displays a heightened sensitivity to certain environmental stimuli, and develops in particular ways due to experiences at this time. If the organism does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this “critical period”, it may be difficult, ultimately less successful, or even impossible, to develop some functions later in life.”

The modification that I made deals with critical periods in neuroscience.  neuroscience critical periods tend to suggest that synoptic bonds and neural connections for things like eyesight take place in the very young.  in this article it is attributed to ideas/concepts/memes, and extended to young adults.

As the classic piece by James Hughes shows, there’s nothing inherently superior about rationality and reason. The rationality project itself rests on nonrational premises. It’s essential that transhumanists remember this.

I guess Antony Flew, who wrote “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind,” in his 70’s, reached his critical period late in life.

Re. post by Abraham:

Imprints are usually, but not necessarily, permanent. There are extraordinary techniques available to mimic re-imprinting conditions, according to certain experts.

By the time a person is seventy, one’s standard imprinting opportunities have passed. Most likely, Mr. Flew just changed his mind, after many years of internal debate after searching for volumes of new information on the topic.

A change of heart does not require that the concept of a critical period be invoked. This may occur through a resort to simple education, especially if the value being overturned was acquired via an imprint of less than its potentially maximum strength.

Imprinting and the critical period are so striking because of the seemingly instantaneous acquisition of a relatively complex set of neurological connections in the absence of any formal presentation or search for the information that is structured by the imprint.

Imprints and critical periods have definite temporal restrictions.

As another example, according to the theory, we only have one critical period in our lives when our favored sexual impersonation role is acquired. The exact time frame will vary, but not wildly. Some time after puberty and within the first few intense sexual experiences, either mentally or physically, the exposure has been completed.

A real, successful imprint is subject, to some degree, to techniques of conditioning, which need to be applied persistently and permanently, if they are to counter the effects of that one relatively short imprinting opportunity that one wishes to mitigate.



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