Why We Believe

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T. 

I want to begin this essay by saying that I believe The Ohio State University Marching Band is the finest college marching band in this country, if not the entire universe. 

Now, I know that there are people out there who may believe something else. They might say that I’m talking about something that cannot really be objectively measured. They might say that an institution of this sort changes as students come and go. They’ll say stuff like, “What about Texas A&M?” They’ll try to get me to watch other bands, or they might even dare to point out the flaws in the OSU band. 

I don’t care. I’ve been in the stadium, I’ve felt them play, and I believe what I believe. No one is going to convince me otherwise.


The Biology of Belief 

Gregory W. Lester PhD., a psychologist on the faculty of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, suggests that belief is an essential function of the brain designed to extend our senses (Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die Skeptical Inquirer November/December 2000). We use belief to create a model of that part of the world we cannot sense simply because our senses have limitations. For instance, I believe my house is where I left it before I came to work this morning. I can’t sense it in any fashion, but in order to efficiently find my home after I leave work tonight, my brain has to create an internal “map” composed entirely of belief and independent of my senses. Without this, my senses alone are inadequate when it comes to finding my home. My belief “knows” where it is though my senses have no clue that it currently exists. 

Understood in this way, belief is seen as an important and necessary way of sensing the world. If the brain’s primary function is to assist in our survival (and it is), something like belief’s tendency to extend our senses serves a biological purpose. In short, belief enhances our tendency to survive, and as such it will form neurologic patterns that prove remarkably resistant to change. 

So, to recap: 

Ø      Belief serves a biological purpose.

Ø      The primary function of the brain is survival.

Ø      Our senses seek to insure our survival.

Ø      Beliefs extend our senses.

Ø      Because of their connection to our senses, beliefs are resistant to change. 

Assuming that Lester is right, any discussion of practice that relies upon a belief system will be perceived by many as a threat to their personal survival mechanisms. To put it another way, it is extremely difficult to question anyone’s belief system without getting into personal issues that have no real bearing on the problems inherent to any practice that is not based on evidence or accepted methods of reasoning. My own experience with alternative medicine practitioners certainly indicates that Lester is on to something. 

The Skeptic’s Mind 

A certain element of disenchantment may be the price we pay for freedom from the darker excesses of True Belief. 

Chet Raymo in Skeptics and True Believers


It’s been my experience that a lot of people equate “skepticism” with “cynicism.” They automatically assume that skeptics (such as myself) are sort of a cranky bunch bent on preserving the status quo. We are thought to be unimaginative, anxious to point out the flaws in another’s argument, and overly mindful of the laws of nature. When it comes to brainstorming about human potential, skeptics are major league party poopers. 

But skepticism is not a position it’s a method. As such, it simply requests that the evidence for any assertion be compelling and rooted in the methods of science. It rejects nothing out of hand and it remains open-minded so long as claims surrounding natural phenomena lend themselves to investigation. The fact is, some claims have been tested (and failed) sufficiently, and believing that they are true is not something a skeptic is likely to do. Skeptics have the ability to alter their beliefs in response to data. According to Lester, this ability is a true gift. It goes against some of our most natural and fundamental biological urges, and skeptics should appreciate how dangerous it may make them appear to those who cannot relinquish their beliefs no matter what. Contrary to popular opinion, skeptics are not any less likely to believe in something (given a rational explanation of its presence) than anyone else. In fact, skeptics are more likely to change their belief systems in response to new data than others, thus resulting in a sum total of more belief through the course of their lives. The key to this expansion of belief is the regular use of learning. Of course, selective resistance to education negates the normal effect of new data, hence my feelings about The Ohio State Marching Band. I know what I’m doing, but, so far, it hasn’t resulted in any harm to my patients and I think I’ll stay with it. After all, I feel everybody needs something to believe in.


Two Ways of Learning 

In order to know what we know about causality we use two distinct information-processing systems; experiential and intellectual learning. The first occurs at a primitive level-it is automatic, rapid and often tied up with emotional reactions. It requires no formal teaching, no practice, no theoretical understanding, no contemplation, and no logic. This sort of learning takes place when events occur closely in time and have a special effect on our nervous system. Touching a hot stove is the most commonly used example of this, and it is certainly true that experiential learning of this sort is essential for our survival. But if our learning consists of this alone the underlying reasons for obvious phenomena remains a mystery open to any sort of speculation or interpretation that fits our needs. This is the basis of superstition and medieval thought. 

Intellectual learning, on the other hand, is not something we’re born with. It is the result of study and contemplation. Using this, generations over time have managed to discover and describe all kinds of things beyond the range of our senses. Without intellectual learning, the mechanisms underlying most phenomena remain mysterious. With it, we can learn how things work without having to go out and experience everything first hand. But as I said, we’re not born with the tendency to work this hard. Intellectual learning separates humans from all the other species, and without it, belief is all we have to help us understand the world we live in. 

What happens when intellectual learning is abandoned? Well, consider what has become of the “myofascial release” community. On their listserv the practitioners of this method commonly speak of “long distance healing” which seems to combine in no particular order, astral projection, remote viewing, clairvoyance, out-of-body experiences, psychokinesis and teleportation. I’m not making this up. Keep in mind that the people practicing in this fashion are licensed professionals and many have college degrees of some sort. Some actually teach in physical therapy programs. Their willingness to draw conclusions about the effect of their work given nothing more that anecdotal evidence is a classic example of experiential learning un-tempered by any sort of scientific method or modern understanding of physics, chemistry, psychology, neurology, anatomy or biomechanics. It is postmodernism as applied to medicine. They call it “intuition.” What a skeptic might call it I’ll leave to your imagination. 

Why do they continue to believe in such things? They believe because to do otherwise would seriously threaten their worldview and, ultimately, their personal feeling of safety. Remember that belief’s biological purpose is to extend our senses and enhance our chances for survival.  So it’s hard for most people to change any belief even in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary. It is supposed to be hard. My personal feeling is that simple belief comes easier than study and contemplation. This makes it very attractive to many people. 

Lester’s essay about belief’s purpose has had a definite effect on me. For years I’ve wondered why so many in our profession avoid any discussion of controversial methods based on belief systems. I have been trying to generate some meaningful and productive communication in this vein for years, specifically with those practicing “energy medicine” (which, by the way, has become the primary theory behind the effects claimed by myofascial and Craniosacral therapists). For the most part, they won’t talk to me, and when they do, it is only to castigate me for my close-mindedness or obvious lack of sensitivity to the “subtle energies” surrounding us. They also think that I’m not being very nice. 

Now that I see how skepticism may be seen as a threat to the survival of another, and how the skeptic’s mind is an uncommon and potentially dangerous thing (to some), I understand their silence and counterattack. 

I still don’t approve of many methods employed by some of my colleagues in physical therapy and bodywork and I will continue to say so. But I understand now why therapists come to believe something and base their practice upon it. And I no longer expect them to change.


Author’s note: The section on the two ways of learning is largely from Alternative Medicine and The Psychology of Belief by James E. Alcock in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine Volume 3 Number 2 Fall/Winter 1999 

If you’re wondering how I came to characterize the work of the myofascial community in the fashion that I did, consider the following verbatim post to their listserv proposing a “group long distance healing” recently discussed at some length: 

“I don't know anything about the time difference over there (Abu Dhabi) so I'm going to ask you to do something. Please pick a day and time when you can be alone, in your bed or on a treatment table for a half an hour. Please post this date and time. Those of us on the chat line who are interested and able can be available to project energy to you at this time and provide you an MFR Treatment long distance. Please pick a time when people on this end of the world might be awake and not at work so we can focus on you.

I'm of course speaking only for myself here but I imagine other people on the line will want to participate. We are hearing your cry for help. I think it might be interesting for all of us as well to learn from/share about this experience. What do you think about this idea?” 

This “distance healing” was followed by many posts describing the “fabulous” nature of the time spent “sending healing energy” to this person in the Middle East, including two that described the helpful participation of therapist’s cats. An entire myofascial class in Sedona also “sent energy” during their class time. I presume they were actually paying for their time there while doing this. There were several subsequent descriptions of myofascial techniques employed during this, uh, trip across the continents, and what people “saw” and felt. The recipient described her feelings and movement and that the following morning “This lower back and leg pain hasn’t been this bad in 2 years.”


So I guess something was accomplished, though I’m not certain what.