The leap of faith

How faith changes your brain

The leap of faith
Jaques- Louis David, the Death of Socrates. 1787. Oil on Canvas. 51 x 77 1/4 in (129.5 x 196.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source Wikimedia Commons.

In 1854, Dostoevsky completed his sentence at the prison in Omsk and was enrolled as a private in the First Siberian Company of the Seventh Line Battalion in Semipalatinsk (now Semey, Kazakhstan). During his internment, he wrote extensively to his brother Michael and other friends, always unsure if those letters would find their intended recipients. Four years of imprisonment in brutal conditions had taken the bluster out of the young man who once derided the “many sour-faced, small-souled, narrow-minded, hoary-headed philosophers” and their “preachments about contentment with one’s destiny, faith in something or other, modest demands from life, acceptance of the station one finds oneself in, and so on”. Following the commuting of his sentence to servitude in the ranks, from his posting in Semipalatinsk and barred from writing to his family and friends, Dostoevsky wrote to Mme. Fonvisin1 in sympathy with her deeply religious faith.

I want to say to you that in such moments, one does, like ‘dry grass,’ thirst after faith, and that one finds it in the end, solely and simply because one sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy. I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved.Fyodor Dostoevsky, Letters to Friends and Family

There is a certain power in faith—not just a faith in God, or love, or science, but the faith in the human spirit—that drives and sustains us. Without the hope and optimism that faith evokes, the mind is wont to plunge into depression and despair. Putting our trust in ourselves gives our life meaning and makes it worth living. We can now pursue with eagerness those processes of life that challenge and consternate us. Because when we have faith, we have a continually evolving set of ideals, great and small, which spur us on towards greater things that are always ahead of us.

According to Newberg and Waldman2, the belief in a benevolent God as opposed to an authoritarian figure activates a tiny area at the front of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which when stimulated, “suppresses the impulse to get angry or frightened”. How you perceive or imagine God also determines which parts of the neural circuitry of the brain are activated and consequently, the feeling and state evoked within you. When you imagine God to be a loving and benevolent being, kindness, compassion, and understanding prevail in the active centres of the brain. Conversely, the belief in a punitive, vindictive, and authoritarian God evokes feelings of fear and retribution, priming the brain for fighting. They also go on to say that the different personalities of God—authoritarian, distant, benevolent, and mystical—correspond to the neurological development of the brain and that the idea of an authoritarian God is the product of the most ancient part of the brain. Believing in a God who isn’t punitive, vindictive, authoritarian, or even of a particular sex, that is, a God who isn’t personified with anthropomorphic characteristics, we begin to perceive God as a force like peace, tranquility, or bliss.

Einstein believed in what he called a cosmic religion3—to him, less a religion than a “rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” Einstein obsessively searched for unity in the universe, believing that science could reveal its immutable laws and describe them in the simplest possible way4. Einstein would fit into a group of people who believe that God is a cosmic force rather than an omnipotent being. This group believes in a distant God, the cosmic force “that set the laws of nature in motion”. They form the second largest group in America and comprise the richest and most educated classes5. Compared to other groups, including atheists, people in this group are more left-wing, progressive, and tolerant in their attitudes towards homosexuality, abortion, and other polarising issues.

There was a time when men of science whole-heartedly subscribed to metaphysical assumptions and worked within in a realm of action which was to be discerned largely by feeling rather than by analysis. In 1869, when Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic table of the chemical elements, he assumed the existence of three unknown elements because he perceived a gap in the sequence of elements, accurately calculating their atomic weights and characteristics. The discovery of Scandium, Gallium, and Germanium fifteen years later conformed to the basic characteristics he had predicted6. In a similar vein Urbain Le Verrier discovered the planet Neptune “with the point of his pen” in 1846. In his General Scholium, which was appended to Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Newton confesses to a lacuna in his hypotheses of gravitational forces “I have not yet disclosed the cause of gravity, nor have I undertaken to explain it, since I could not understand it from the phenomena. For it does not arise from the centrifugal force of any vortex, since it does not tend to the axis of the vortex but to the centre of the planet.” What Newton wanted to believe was that those unexplainable parts of his hypotheses were dealt by the hand of God and there it must be left, for to probe further would be unnecessary and inappropriate. Newton knew that this contradicted his earlier declaration of hypotheses non fingo, and later, suppressed the Fifth Rule in his Regulae Philosoophandi, “that what neither can be demonstrated from phenomena or follows from them by argument based on induction, I hold as hypotheses.”7 When a hypotheses is no longer subject to the laws of validation or repudiation, it must be taken at face value by the student. In such hypotheses, the scientist discerns certain correspondences between his observations of the natural world and the predictions that “follow from the model.” Niels Bohr calls this complementarity the fundamental “regularities of nature”8 that scientists as observers of the natural world must build up an understanding of. Inferred phenomena/entities such as atoms, molecules and neutrinos—what Reichenbach called illata—are also consigned to the realm of the unknown.

Science is not a system of certain, or well-established, statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances a state of finality … We do not know: we can only guess. And our guesses are guided b the unscientific … faith in laws, in regularities which we can uncover—discover. Like Bacon, we might describe our own contemporary science—”the method of reasoning which men now ordinarily apply to nature”—as consisting of “anticipations, rash and premature” and as “prejudices.” Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959)

In the early twentieth century, many scientists, including those who greatly influenced Einstein, initiated a drive towards a “pure” science, one that admitted only concepts that could be observed and measured and the jettisoning of metaphysical concepts like ether and infinite space. Einstein in particular stressed the establishment of the fundamental concepts of physics such as time and space through epistemological analysis, because, in his words “when I turn to science not for some superficial reason such as money-making or ambition, and also not for the pleasure of sport, the delights of brain athletics, then the following questions must burningly interest me as a disciple of this science: what goal can and will be reached by the science to which I am dedicating myself? To what extent are its general results true? What is essential, and what is based only on the accidents of development?”9. Eliminating dogmatic notions, explanations conferred upon natural phenomena of which the human mind is incapable of deciphering was a first step towards a positivistically oriented philosophy of science. For nineteenth century physicists like Poincaré, whose faith was grounded in the ineffable ether, which substituted for the divine hand of earlier centuries, abandoning their belief in ether was not an option. Scientists like Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz (whose relativity equations Einstein would later use) who worked on relativity theory years before Einstein, and whose work formed the basis of Einstein’s own theory later, though willing to admit that Einstein’s reinterpretation of time was a significant achievement, preferred to stick to the older notions of time and duration—the “ordinary mechanics”—because he feared the rift that would develop in the scientific community if these new theories were widely adopted10.

A belief is a system in which all acts of observation and judgment are made solely from within, and in which all other considerations are subordinated to the maintenance of the system itself. When an outside observer is in a position to see that such a system contains an incorrect belief, and also that no proof of its incorrectness can be given in the terms of the system itself, then he is in a position to say that the system has become a trap. In such a situation the outside observer will see those within as being dogmatic, while those on the inside will see the observer as someone who refuses to accept what is ‘obviously so’. And, in fact, both will be right.Gabriel Stolzenberg, The Invented Reality (1980)

Beliefs are survival mechanisms that are learned from our families and the communities in which we are placed. They are inculcated by long habit and require no introspection. Beliefs are founded on knowledge, usually only half won and wholly inadequate for conviction. A child who is bitten by a dog must develop the belief that it was that dog that attacked him. Though he may generalise his conviction to include all dogs, the belief serves its immediate purpose of identifying future dangers. Beliefs are forged in the ancient part of the brain called the amygdala—the part of the limbic system concerned with survival and self-preservation.

According to Jonas Kaplan of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, beliefs directly stimulate the brain’s default mode network, a collection of brain structures associated with our self-identity. The two primary structures that constitute the network are the prefrontal lobe and the posterior cingulate. This is why people react strongly and sometimes with violence when their beliefs are challenged11. Because of how deeply language is ingrained in our neurological system, the default mode of the brain is verbal and narrowly circumscribed. The definition and meaning of a word is more a theory than a firm concept and is more often than not the stereotype. Whether a stereotype or habit of interpretation, concepts strung together with words become, in time, harder to change.

When a word has been used as a building block in hundreds of linguistic constructions, it is difficult to try to change its shape without risking the collapse of all these edifices.Guy Claxton, Noises From the Dark Room (1994)

Belief stems from knowledge gained by observation of reality. Knowledge, in turn, involves a belief in reality and thus is stateable only in terms of change. In order to observe well and recognise things, we must have perceptions which correspond to reality. However, as most psychotherapeutic practitioners know, we human beings do not act upon the world as directly perceived through our senses, but rather through a map or model that represents our world as it has been conditioned and simplified by numerous perceptual filters, of what we believe the world to be. The brain is incapable of creating a detailed map of the external world and instead, only selects a handful of sensory cues and then tries to construct their details from past memories, fantasies, beliefs, and hypotheses. This is further complicated because the brain also creates two internal maps of reality—a map that is a truer representation of what we are consciously aware of in our world and the afore mentioned subconscious map, formed by our sensory and emotional circuits. Science has yet to discover if and to what extent our conscious and subconscious realities interact or overlap with each other12. In fact, verisimilitude of representation doesn’t seem overly important to the brain. In encountering objects in our environment, all we receive from our senses are the similar and dissimilar groupings of characteristics of the known artefacts already catalogued and classified in the storehouse of the mind. Thought ceaselessly theorises upon the ontological and teleological aspects of these groupings, thus imbuing them with a permanent character that bears little or no resemblance to the objects themselves—which are both, changeless and changeable.

By sight we know the similar, but it is only by faith that we come to know the same.George Ladd, Philosophy of Mind

Although faith implies that knowledge be removed with regard to certain objects of reality, it is the removal of fears—those certain types of negative beliefs—and an accumulation of positive beliefs. Fear conjures states of pessimism, dissatisfaction, grief, anxiety, despondency, hatred, worry, moroseness, anger, and vacillation, while faith is synonymous with optimism, satisfaction, happiness, confidence, assurance, hopefulness, cheerfulness, courage, and determination.

“But how, Mentor,” replied Telemachus, “dare I go up to Nestor, and how am I to address him? I have never yet been used to holding long conversations with people, and am ashamed to begin questioning one who is so much older than myself.” “Some things, Telemachus,” answered Minerva, “will be suggested to you by your own instinct, and heaven will prompt you further; for I am assured that the gods have been with you from the time of your birth until now.”Homer, The Odyssey

The apostle Paul defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Faith is the secret of St. Augustine, the lifelong invalid whose writings and actions constitute two phenomenal volumes. Faith is what drove Nietzsche, who struggled with illness all through his life. Dostoevsky suffered persecution, imprisonment, failing health, and personal loss throughout his prolific career. It is thus apparent that faith, for saints and sinners both, is a state of mental hope and confidence. It is common to all mankind and not something in the domain of the sublime or supernatural.

Because any action is first engendered in thought, what we believe eventually becomes who and what we are. Thought produces action, action produces habit, and habits form character. Conversely, any thought may be fused on to the intellect when accompanied by a strong and powerful emotion. An action on which we concentrate our thought, gradually becomes easier to conceive, and sometimes, takes place in us without our being aware of it. In this way, many of actions and circumstances are born as the realisation of some old but persistent thought which as has been persistently turned over in the mind in efforts of subconscious cogitation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bolstered by the thematic and anecdotal hypotheses in the sciences, several Christian movements gained momentum. Mary Baker Eddy established the First Church of Christ, Scientist after she was successfully healed through Mesmer’s hypnotism. Christian Science practitioners believed that the mind was all-powerful and that thoughts and feelings gave rise to objects and occurrences in the physical world. Evil could thus be destroyed by denying its existence and sickness could be cured through divine love. New Thought, or Mental Science, as it was sometimes known by its progenitors, weaved together elements of the Bible, thematic13 elements of science, Aristotelian ideas, and Eastern philosophy, while shedding the dogmas of Christian Science. Despite their metaphysical leanings, modern neuroscience has validated the efficacy of their teachings to the neurological functioning of the brain: changing your way of thinking changes your physical circumstances, because positive thoughts can suppress negative ones and thus regulate a more healthy neurology within the body and the brain14.

For today faith, if it bears any relation to the natural world, implies faith in the unconscious. If there is a God, he must speak there; if there is a healing power, it must operate there; if there is a principle of ordering in the organic realm, it’s most powerful manifestation must be found there.Lancelot Law Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud

The philosopher Blaise Pascal calls the debate of God’s existence a wager since reason can determine nothing about it. However, a faith which cannot give reasons for its existence is likely to be frail. And in today’s cynical, secular world, it would be fair to say that most of us consider the spiritual practices of so-called “New Age” religions (even though the Eastern philosophies on which their practices are based on are older than any organised western religion) as mumbo-jumbo and we don’t want to be railroaded into “finding God”, chanting with crystals, or embracing astrology. And there is probably good reason for our distrust of purveyors of mystical and mythical lore, given the sordid history of religious cults and their charismatic evangelical mountebanks. In the process we completely close the door on any possibility of mystical change and sensory experiences that were the original aims of these practices. The salutary aspects of meditation have been ignored by the scientific community because of the inherent difficulty in clearly articulating the processes of the mind, so that today, meditative practices are anathema to the scientific community. However, Eastern mindfulness is built upon an elaborate system of cosmology that has been refined and developed over many millennia. A code of morality is built into the ancient teachings of mindfulness, for when habitual assumptions no longer cloud perception, the mind reverts to a more natural and intuitive state in which it more clearly reckons basic priorities and is capable of spontaneous right action more easily.

If you contemplate God long enough, something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change. Different circuits become activated, while others become deactivated. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to subtle realms of experience. Perceptions alter, beliefs begin to change, and if God has meaning for you, then God becomes neurologically real.Newberg & Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain (2009)

Finally, contemplation strengthens a specific neurological circuit in the brain that fosters compassion for others, while subduing destructive feelings and emotions. For early humans, compassion towards others in the tribe and altruism towards one’s fellowman went hand-in-hand with one’s own self interest. In today’s society, now more than ever, we need to reconnect to that faith in the human spirit that is the wellspring peacefulness and social awareness. When faith is liberated from religion or doctrine, then it becomes a natural act of surrendering our fears to a greater unknown. Faith transcends mere belief because it is a giving up of control, a letting go of life itself, and a complete trust in the unknown.

  1. Dostoyevsky, F. (1914). Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his family & friends. London: Chatto & Windus. ↩︎

  2. Newberg, A., & Waldman, M. R. (2009). How God changes your brain: Breakthrough findings from a leading neuroscientist. New York, NY, US: Ballantine Books. ↩︎

  3. Einstein’s Letter: God and Superstition, published in The Guardian (2008, May 13). ↩︎

  4. Holton, Gerald James. 1988. Thematic origins of scientific thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ↩︎

  5. In Newberg & Waldman, ibid. ↩︎

  6. Gordin, M. D. A well-ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table. Basic Books, 2004. ↩︎

  7. In a study of Newton’s manuscripts by Alexander Koyre (Koyré, Alexandre. Newtonian Studies. Harvard University Press, United States (1965)) as quoted by Gerald Holton, ibid. ↩︎

  8. Dugald Murdoch, Niels Bohr’s philosophy of physics (Cambridge, 1987). ↩︎

  9. Gerald Holton, ibid. ↩︎

  10. Canales, J. (2017). The physicist & the philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the debate that changed our understanding of time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Pres. ↩︎

  11. Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counter-evidence. Scientific Reports, 6(1). doi: 10.1038/srep39589. ↩︎

  12. In Newberg & Waldman, ibid. Include something about the two maps and how meditation facilitates separate realities. ↩︎

  13. Thematic here in sense of the term as borrowed from Gerard Holton (ibid) as applied to scientific hypotheses that, by nature, are “not subject to verification or falsification … built as a bridge over the gap of ignorance.” ↩︎

  14. The only requirement for admittance to the Freemasons is that you must believe in God. And although they use Christian rituals and frameworks in their rituals, not all lodges worship Christian saints. The sole aim of stipulating this requirement is that their members put their trust in God—which the lodge recognises a being fundamental to morality and a healthy respect for the laws of the universe. ↩︎