According to some polls, many Americans believe the Bible is literally true, Saddam Hussein helped plan the 9/11 attacks, and Britney Spears is not suited to raise her own children. (No data at the moment about how many Americans believe polls about what Americans believe.)
Can you believe it?
Humans behave in accordance with how they perceive their surroundings. They perceive their surroundings in accordance with how they’ve been taught. How they’ve been taught helps to cultivate beliefs. Like many aspects of human psychology and neurology, however, the origin of our beliefs is a topic up for grabs.
In his book, The Biology of Belief, cell biologist Bruce H. Lipton states that thoughts “directly influence how the physical brain controls the body’s physiology ... The fact is that harnessing the power of your mind can be more effective than the drugs you have been programmed to believe you need.”
Perhaps the most common proof of Lipton’s hypothesis is the placebo effect. “The critical factor,” says Irving Kirsch, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, “is our beliefs about what's going to happen to us. You don't have to rely on drugs to see profound transformation.” Current research seems to support the claim that a person's beliefs, sensory experience, and thoughts can affect neurochemistry—and thus impact outcomes.
Consider the concept of hypnosis. Neuro-psychologists point to alterations in brain activity to explain this phenomenon. EEG research shows a shift in the location of brain activity during the hypnotic process. Hence, the neurological changes just may help facilitate the power of suggestion.
While not exactly an accepted scientific term, the “power of suggestion” is a confirmed psychological mechanism. Our subconscious can accept or reject input. From repressed childhood memories to self-help mantras, the input varies widely but what the subconscious accepts is what it responds to and thus acts on.
What all this suggests is that despite the ballyhoo surrounding genetic research and the mapping of the human genome, we humans are made up of much more than our DNA. “We are not the expression of our genes,” declares Ruth Hubbard, professor emeritus of biology at Harvard, “and knowing their location on the chromosomes, or their composition, does not enable someone to predict what we will look or be like. ... It is a mistake to put too much weight on genes or DNA.”
“I can believe anything provided it is incredible.”
– Oscar Wilde
One thing I believe is that most humans very much want to be fooled. We want to believe in magic. Why else do we marvel at card tricks, sleight of hand, the two-party system, and other illusions? An existence in which every single act has been logically explained runs contrary to the typical human spirit and thus, many of us are ripe for the fooling. As Exhibit A, consider the cautionary tale of marauding Martians landing in New Jersey.
On Oct. 30, 1938—the night before Halloween—Orson Welles and his radio troupe, the Mercury Theater of the Air, put on a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. Presented as if it were a newscast, the story of a deadly Martian invasion (beginning in the fictional Grover’s Mill, New Jersey) was mistaken by many listeners to be true. Despite the fact that Welles interjected periodic explanations that this was only a radio play, the result was mass hysteria. Americans, mostly in the Northeast, armed themselves, hit the road, hid in basements, and essentially panicked.
“All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time,” Dorothy Thompson later wrote in the New York Tribune. “They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic. They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery.”
“There’s no doubt that there’s a rich, complex human nature,” says Noam Chomsky. “When you get to cultural patterns, belief systems, and the like, the guess of the next guy you meet at the bus stop is about as good as that of the best scientist. Nobody knows anything.”
As they say in South Florida: Bingo.
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net