The Power of Beliefs

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I enjoy sharing with my readers things I am currently reading or stumble on that I find interesting or provocative.A recent focus of mine has been on understanding the nature of implicit biases, what they are, where they come from, which ones are unfair, toxic, destructive or those biases that are reasonable because they are protective.

The focus of this blog is on implicit biases around promoting prejudice against people just because they look different. It is about stereotyping, often promoting negative beliefs based on preconceived notions of what those differences represent.

In addressing toxic, implicit biases, it can be helpful to understand some things about the nature and power of beliefs. Beliefs have the power to alter physiology, to influence how the body functions, and how people experience life. Implicit biases are based on beliefs created by the brain as it categorizes the world from infancy on, often doing so with very little accuracy as far as the truth of what is being stereotyped.

Let’s consider some information about the nature of beliefs.

In The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles, Dr. Bruce Lipton describes the power of the placebo effect, when what a person believes can override medical interventions. He shares the following story.

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A Baylor School of Medicine study, published in 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine evaluated surgery for patients with severe, debilitating knee pain. The author of the study believed that surgeons know there is no placebo effect with surgery and did a study to prove that. The patients in the study were divided into three groups. In one group the surgeon shaved the damaged cartilage in the knee, and in another group the surgeon flushed out the knee joint, removing material sought to be causing the inflammatory effect. Both of these are standard treatments for arthritic knees. However, the third group got what he called “fake” surgery. The patient was sedated and the surgeon made three standard incisions and talked and acted like he would during a real surgery, and then sewed up the incisions. All three groups received the same postoperative care.

The results were amazing! The groups who received actual surgery improved as was expected. However, the placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups. He said the placebo patients, who continued to function just as the patients who had actual surgery didn’t find out for two years that they had experienced fake surgery.  “Beliefs control biology,” is the author’s conclusion.

In the New York Times bestseller Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience, journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s research on the powers of spirituality found that spirituality, a specific kind of belief system, predicted a significant amount to disease progression.

She asked researcher Gail Ironson who wanted to discover if there was some independent contribution spirituality made over and above other psychological constructs, about the results of her research. “You found that if, say, someone wasn’t taking their meds and was depressed, they could still do better if they were spiritual than if they weren’t spiritual?” The answer was yes. “Turning to God rather than rejecting God appears to boost your immune system nearly 5 times as effectively.”

People have discovered the power of mindfulness to influence their understanding of themselves, others and the world. In doing so, mindfulness actually can change the brain.

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Dr Meera Joshi,  a mindfulness expert for Bupa UK, described how scientists, using MRIs, could see how the brain changes as a result of mindfulness. For example, after practicing mindfulness, the gray matter in the brain’s amygdala, the region known for gathering data around what is to be feared can become smaller and the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, where executive functioning occurs, can become thicker, showing increased activity in one’s thinking. She also noted that the hippocampus, which involves memory and learning, can also become thicker.

These are just a few examples of some of the evidence-based research that suggests we all have the power to use our minds to impact our beliefs and our bodies. In these times when we need to address the impact and power of implicit biases, it can be helpful to appreciate the power of the beliefs behind those biases.

These days of stress and anxiety can take an enormous toll on our bodies, especially our immune systems. It is important to appreciate that we have the power to change our brains and pursue ways to access that power. I encourage you to check out various mindfulness websites to see what appeals to you and access your power to change your brain and learn more about implicit biases and their connection to inaccurate beliefs.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. To what extent are you familiar with your own implicit biases? If you want to check this out, go to Harvard’s website to take their Implicit Associations Test.  
  2. Consider the power you have to change the way you think and feel and the way your body behaves through the use of your mind to influence your beliefs. In what ways can you use this information to make changes that will enhance not only your health, but your understanding of your implicit biases?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute