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The Sciences and the Arts: an Interdisciplinary Symposium Knoxville, TN , November 24-25, 2008. Neil Greenberg University of Tennessee. The Neuropsychology of Belief. We derive our beliefs…. “…through argument and experience.

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The Sciences and the Arts: an Interdisciplinary Symposium Knoxville, TN , November 24-25, 2008

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The Sciences and the Arts: an Interdisciplinary SymposiumKnoxville, TN , November 24-25, 2008

Neil GreenbergUniversity of Tennessee

The Neuropsychology of Belief

We derive our beliefs…

“…through argument and experience.

Argument brings conclusions and compels us to concede them, but does not cause certainty nor remove the doubts in order that the mind may remain at rest in truth,

unless this is provided by experience.”

Roger Bacon (1268)


Belief is the psychological state in which an individual is more-or-less confident in the validity of an ongoing or remembered percept (or constellation of percepts; confidence translates into fitness)

Confidence is derived from the concordance of two complementary processes of reality testing (cerebral activities at specific sites that establish and validate correspondence and coherence)


Validity can be more-or-less internal (limited generalizability; e.g., individual) or external(broad generalizability; e.g., population)

the "Bayesian brain” constantly makes predictions about the world based on epigenetic bias and past experience and constantly updates them based on new experiences

NEW experiences are either assimilated (easy) or accommodated (harder)

This constant reading and updating is an existential corollary of living: each instant is suspended between a remembered past and an imagined future

"Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time.

One of the most baffling experiences occurs.

Where is it, this present?

It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.“ --Wm James, 1890

Energy, ultimately of environmental origin flows through the organism.

Its representation of the environment as a potential basis for adaptive response is checked at multiple levels in a nested hierarchy.

Each level enables a reality-test: the validity of a representation is assessed utilizing the two complementary processes: correspondence and coherence.

The holon

These processes are exquisitely sensitive to the relative maturity and activities of information processing and storage functions of the organism...

Neuroplastic change is results from genetically programmed growth in constant interaction with experience of the environment...

Neural change focused or catalyzed by experience enables progressively more effective assessments (of reality) as the brain accumulates memories -- and thus expectations!


  • are derived, configured, and coordinated by cerebral functions (that serves the dual functions of memory and imagination)

  • Their pursuit is in lockstep with the maturation of brain (growing competence guided by social context)

  • They develop as our experience enlarges and is informed (ontogeny, experience, epigenesis, social referencing)

  • Their competition to control action guides our behavior (process analogous to lateral inhibition)


  • are imbued with more or less confidence (after tests of “correspondence” and “coherence”)

  • The highest confidence we are capable of approximates “truth” (and can be extrapolated to an “ideal’)

  • Their coordination constitutes a “world-view” (which can evoke epiphany or “paradigm shift.” when reconfigured)

  • Their “willing suspension” can create “art” (experience which, in a “relaxed field,” invites or fosters creative insight; enables paradigm shifts; can detect unity within variety)


  • Empiricism and Reality-Testing

    • Distinguish internally from externally-generated percepts (hallucination vs experience)

    • data-based, induction-driven

    • PERCEPTS CORRESPOND to reality

  • Rationalism and Story-Telling

    • Connections between relationships imply causation and create mutually supportive percepts more easily evoked as memory by means of a broadly distributed network

    • theory-based, deduction-driven

    • PERCEPTS COHERE with each other



  • Belief is a psychological state … ordinarily created by the reality testing method of correspondence and corroborated by coherence

  • We trust the process not to validate hallucinations or other internally created but invalid percepts

  • Beliefs are true to the extent they are valid

    • One may trust their friends with their safety … their brakes with their lives … their chosen faith with their immortal souls

  • Believes can never be sufficiently validated

    • In fact, the opiate-senstitive motivational system underlying the appetitive behavior of infovores can become addicted (Biederman & Vessel 2006)

We see the world not as it is, But as we are . . .

Jacob’s Ladder connects earth and heaven, the real and the ideal

We see the world not as it is, But as we are . . .


Our life experience has established a vivid intuition that resists even plausible deniability:

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises

(Samuel Butler Notebooks (1912) ch. 1)

And sufficency is a key concept: for purposes of biological fitness, understanding need not be perfect, only competitive


A coherent narrative “fills in the gaps” between percepts in which we are (more-or-less)confident – this is the business of the brain (and “God-of-the gaps” theology”):

  • The general perceptual mechanism of "filling in" is called surface interpolation(creating the illusion of seamless experience)

  • The corresponding process extending coherence into the future is extrapolation ... (IF an unknown future is stressful ... Consider an unknowable future).

Extrapolation extends coherence but where does it end?

STRESS that needs to be relieved by denial, self-deception (Ibsen’s “Vital Lies”), or other various ways of minimizing cognitive dissonance (Festinger) … and as Jack Nicholson’s Col Jessup said in “A Few Good Men,” 1992: “You can’t handle the truth!”

The “ultimate” challenge ... At the boundary of reason: The MYSTERIUM TREMENDENS, (Rudolph Otto’s catalyst for a spiritual transformation)


Acceptance of experience that doesn’t correspond to external reality:kinds of hallucinations; Bonnet’s Syndrome(filling in scotoma); dismorphic body; pareidolia. (False positive (confident match with memories); Type I Error; gullible, trusting)

Denial of experience that does correspond to external reality: agnosias: eg, visual(left occip), associative, anasognosia(denial of dysfunction / right cerebral cortices), prosopagnosia(faces) (False negative (failure to match with memories); Type II Error; skeptical, wary)


  • ANOSOGNOSIA(from the Greek: A + nosos (disease) + gnosis (knowledge)

  • Ignorance or denial of the presence of disease

    • Most famously of paralysis in patients with non-dominant (usually right) parietal lobe damage -- patients deny their hemiparesis, & confabulate rationalizations

  • Detection of discrepencies impaired

    • When the right hemisphere is denied input from the reality-testing of the left hemisphere; internal model is “untested” by feedback, leaving left-side function seemingly “hallucinated.”

Confabulation coherence without correspondence

  • “The production of coherent but fictitious stories”

  • First observed by Korsakoff in alcoholics

  • Can be provoked(eg., to avoid embarassment)or spontaneous (Schnider 2003)

  • Involve anterior limbic structures (orbitofrontal)

  • Impressive when right hemisphere (and its “reciprocity” with the left hemisphere) is damaged

Causes of Confabulation

  • Right hemisphere stroke: denial of left side paralysis.

  • Korsakoff’s syndrome: inability to form new memories due to temporal lobe dysfunction.

  • Acting out after a hypnotic suggestion will be rationalized with improvised confabulations

  • Schizophrenia: confabulations to rationalize hallucinations or to justify paranoia

  • Capgras syndrome: incomplete sense of who owns a familiar face: alien imposters?


  • When separated, EACH hemisphere is UNAWARE of the ipsilateral world

    • Yet neither is aware of being incomplete

    • Each functions as best it can with the information available


Coherence: creates a consistent belief system – works to “save appearances”

(Ramachandran 1998)

Probabilistic reasoning

(Osherson et al 1998)

Abstract object recognition

(Marsolek 1999)

Activated by familiar percepts

(Goldberg 2001)


Correspondence: “skeptical,” tests reality and if damaged, confabulation runs rampant

(Ramachandran 1998)

Deductive reasoning

(Osherson et al 1998)

Specific object recognition

(Marsolek 1999)

Activated by unfamiliar percepts

(Goldberg 2001)


The “narrative self” in left frontal cortex: “saves appearances”

(Gazzaniga (1996) (including body boundaries)

“Frequency Matching” (probability guessing in humans: based on perceived pattern) (Wolford et al. 2000)

“Interpreter” sorts through abundance of detail to create the best possible “belief system”(Ramchandran on Gazzaniga 1998)


“Kuhnian” in its sensitivity to “unmet expectations” Orbitofrontal integration of exterocepgive and interoceptive areas and assess urgency of mismatch (Schore 1994-1998)

“Maximizing” (probability guessing in animals; based on most frequent recent experiences) (Wolford et al. 2000)

Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC)

ACC appears to generate brain waves manifesting “error-related negativity” (ERN) associated with the detection and correction of errors.

Alternatively, the ERN may indicate an affect-laden response to a mismatch between expectancies and outcomes.

The Anterior Cingulate Cortex

The ACC is a stress-sensitive site that has the potential to affect our confidence in beliefs.

Spindle cells project to many sites but especially frontal polar cortex where responses that compensate for “error-detection” are selected and initiated.

While often regarded as part of the emotion-processing limbic system, ACC is more likely a specialized neocortical structure that can also deploy mechanisms of the autonomic nervous system by which we express more or less energetic activation of the stress response.

"Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning, and under every deep a lower deep opens"


INFORMATION FLOWS across a HOLONIC landscape, sculpting and being sculpted by the path, transforming and being transformed by the gates through which it must pass in recursive fashion



Between the organism and the world there are countless levels, each with its unique “gate” (threshold).

Each gate may or may not admit the information that represents the world to the next level, but in doing so, both the gate and the information are transformed into something new.

If the information flow is allowed to continue, it passes to a level of greater complexity, connected to a much richer reservoir of possible associations and subject to progressively more subtle transformations.

The holon

INFORMATION FLOWS across a HOLONIC landscape, sculpting and being sculpted by the path, transforming and being transformed by the gates through which it must pass in recursive fashion



Feedback corroborates the continuing validity of this “acceptable” information and it may be passed on to a higher level

Each layer requires progressively more energy to judge the need for the now modified information to move to another “gate” at a higher level of complexity in which the representation of the world is again assessed and possibly advanced to the next level in recursive fashion

The highest level is conscious awareness

The holon

These processes are instantiated and deployed at multiple levels of organization

Energy is allocated in proportion to the real or perceived urgency

“higher” processes are not invoked unless “lower” processes fail to resolve and validate a percept;

At at least the highest the validity of a representation is assessed utilizing the two complementary processes: correspondence and coherence.

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