Speech reveals beliefs impact on power over the brain

By Chris Campellone
November 15, 2007

Beliefs are important to the lives of many people and they have an extreme power over the one who possesses them. Andrew Newberg M.D., professor of radiology, psychiatry and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, stressed the power of beliefs on the brain during his lecture “Born to Believe: God, Science and the origin of ordinary and extraordinary beliefs,” in the Grace Hall boardroom on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Newberg’s lecture consisted of both scientific data and a number of anecdotes that were up for interpretation. Newberg told a story about a man who was diagnosed with cancer and was given an experimental drug. He began to get better and then when he discovered the drug was a placebo he passed away. Newberg used this story among others to get across the message of how powerful placebos, and more importantly beliefs, are on the brain and how they can affect people.

“Beliefs have a tremendous power over many aspects of our lives,” Newberg said. What we believe and how different people interpret the same data are unique.

Newberg stressed being cautious while interpreting data. He conducted brain scans on people while they were in prayer that showed increases of activity in some areas and a decrease in others.

“We have to be very cautious about how he interpret the data,” Newberg said. Newberg discovered that people of faith interpreted the data as proof that God exists, while atheists interpreted the data as the exact opposite, as proof that there is no God.

While Newberg spent a lot of the lecture discussing how powerful the brain is, he also discussed its shortcomings.

“Brains perceive things that aren’t real,” Newberg said. He showed slides of different optical illusions, allowing the crowd to draw their own conclusions. For the most part the brains were fooled into seeing something that wasn’t real.

For Newberg, beliefs are a part of everyone’s life, including atheists. Newberg said that atheism is definitely a belief system. Although it may not be a traditional kind it is a belief system nonetheless. Newberg also stressed that many beliefs are engrained into people at birth by their parents, and they eventually tend to seek relationships with other like-minded people.

When Newberg was asked if he was a man of faith, he responded carefully by saying that he has his own beliefs but does not strictly follow a certain belief system. Newberg said he was excited to learn more and conduct more experiments in the pursuit of empirical proof.

“Beliefs are the essence of our being,” Newberg said at the conclusion of his lecture. Newberg then played on Descartes’ famous saying of “Cogito, ergo sum” which literally means, “I think, therefore I am,” by saying simply “Credo, ergo sum,” which can be translated as “I believe, therefore I am.”

Chris Campellone

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