Thursday, April 3, 2008

Neurophysiology of Belief Change

This report was printed in the April 2008 UCLA Magazine. What is interesting is the finding that a change in a person’s belief system seems to also make a change in his neurophysiology, which seems to lock the belief system in place. It is a much more complicated change than “just changing your mind” which implies only a psychological shift of ideas


Shortly before Sam Harris became a New York Times best-selling author, he was a UCLA doctoral student in neuroscience, a mere dissertation away from his Ph.D.

But in 2004, Harris took some time off to write The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. The book sold wildly and Harris was anointed a leader of America's atheist awakening.

After writing another bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation, and traveling the speaker circuit, Harris returned last fall to his doctoral research. His latest writings were published this January, not in a book but in the scholarly Annals of Neurology, and the subject wasn't faith but research into the physiological distinctions between belief and disbelief.

The study tested the hypothesis that belief "might have a functional localization in the brain and the design of the study was to isolate such regions," explains Mark S. Cohen, Harris' thesis adviser and professor of psychiatry at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, who co-authored the study with Harris and Sameer Sheth Ph.D. '03, M.D. '05 of Massachusetts General Hospital. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists found that a region of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty acted differently depending on subjects' acceptance of statements they were given while inside the machine. A portion of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex appeared to be at least partly responsible for discerning belief of all kinds, whether it's "a personal God exists as described in the Bible" or "George Bush is president of the United States."

"It has no relevance to the question of whether or not there is a God," Harris says of the findings. "Even if we had a perfect belief detector, we still can't tell you what is true in the world. You put somebody in the scanner who believes Elvis is still alive, and all we will be able to tell you is, 'Yes, he does believe Elvis is still alive.'”

Still, Cohen observes, "This study demonstrates convincingly that fMRI has the power and sensitivity to probe levels of human cognition that subjects may not be conscious of." In the planning stages a follow-up study to explore differences in neurological activities between those who believe in God and those who don't, with non-believers as the control group.

"If you are given a proposition you truly don’t believe, it is just mere words," Harris concludes. "The moment you give them credence a complete transformation of your neurology and psychology and physiology occurs. Belief is the hinge upon which the door to behavior and emotion swings."
— Brad A. Greenberg '04

Dear Abby's Advice on Marriage to a Multiple

The following letters appeared in today's Tribune of April 2, 2008 (San Luis Obispo, CA) Any comments are welcome.

Daughter lauds mom's work to integrate selves

Dear Abby: I was offended by your response to "True Love Texan" (Jan. 18) when he asked about loving a woman with multiple personality disorder. MPD is also known as Dissociative Identity Disorder. Individuals with DID have survived severe childhood abuse. The way they
coped was to split into different personalities. DID can be treated through intense psychotherapy, which attempts to integrate the personalities into one.
A loving relationship is possible with people who have DID. My mother is an example. She has DID due to extreme childhood ritual and sexual abuse. She's the most amazing and resilient woman I have ever known, and I am proud to be her daughter. My father has been married to her for 35 years and has supported her unconditionally. It can work! Please educate your readers and provide some useful information about the courageous people who live with DID.
— Proud of Mom in Pennsylvania

Dear Proud of Mom:
I received a slew of mail about this. My response to "True Love Texan" was not meant to minimize the seriousness of Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The following responses offer personal insights meant to support him as well as provide information about this sensitive topic. Read on:

Dear Abby:
Telling that Texan to be certain that he loves every one of the multiple personalities may not be possible. However, it is possible to have a successful marriage with a person who has DID.
My husband and I will celebrate our 20th anniversary this summer, and he is a multiple. We knew about some of his personalities when we began dating, but others have surfaced as the years went on. It has not been easy, and I have had to deal with different folks coming out at awkward times. But as my husband said, "Your life will never be boring if you marry me," and he was right.
— Wife to One of Many in Vancouver, Wash.

Dear Abby:
I know from firsthand experiences that all the love, devotion and loyalty may never be enough when dealing with a person with DID. Instead of being a partner, spouse or equal, I became my wife's caregiver, peacemaker and sometimes a target.
Nothing was ever easy; I could not depend on anything going smoothly or without incident. After 13 years of turmoil and uncertainty, I had to leave. A serious illness gave me no choice but to take care of myself for a change.
I hope "True Love Texan" will heed the warnings of his friends and understand the gravity of this illness before he makes a lifetime commitment.
— Wiser in California

Dear Abby:
When a child is denied "normal" defenses and abused by those who are responsible for providing safety, some children do the most sane thing possible. They retreat into their own minds to a place of safety. We choose to call this by a new term, Multiple Personality Gift (MPG).
As long as the woman is in counseling, and "True Love Texan" is on board with the counseling, there is no reason they cannot have a good and productive life together
– Adoptive Mom in New York