The Anatomy of Internalized Beliefs

 

Daniel M. Ogilvie

 

Department of Psychology

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

This paper looks into the question of how beliefs, frequently internalized during childhood, can become lifetime fixtures in the human mind.  Beliefs about the soul are targeted for this essay, but the general principles set forth should be applicable to any beliefs that implicitly or explicitly sustain worldviews.  I argue that internalized beliefs are as physical as they are mental in that they ward off or sedate unpleasant feelings that are generated in response to uncomfortable imbalances of the internal milieu of the body.  The paper draws upon the developmental theories of Daniel Stern and Antonio Damasio and features unfolding senses of self in childhood as important components in securing such beliefs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anatomy of Internalized Beliefs

            In one thought-provoking sentence, rich with implications, Charles Darwin (1958) wrote: "Nor should we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation of a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear of snakes."  

            Modern researchers intent on finding a "God gene" might be encouraged by Darwin's use of the words "inherited" and "instinctive," thinking that the master himself would have supported the idea that belief in God is hardwired into our brains, an inevitable piece of our design.  Drawing upon evolutionary theory to explain how genes that predispose people to believe in God might have gotten into the mix of genes in the common gene pool, one could argue that people who believed in God in the early dawn of human history were more "fit" than non-believers and, as a result, they had more children than did ancient atheists whose numbers dwindled because they lacked the critical genes and thereby were bereft of the benefits that accompanied their expression.  In that way, belief in God became "instinctive" among those who inherited the genes.  And, as everyone knows, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to control the expression of instincts.   Instincts give their carriers no choice. 

Of course there are other ways to think about this matter.  One is some behaviors that appear to be instinctive are, in fact, learned behaviors.   How would that work?  How could something that is learned be as difficult for people to shed as it is for monkeys to throw off their fear of snakes?  Superficially, that's easy to explain.  I have never poked a fork into an electric outlet because I was told at a young age not to do that and I trusted my informant.  I apply sunscreen to exposed parts of my body whenever I am out of doors for an extended amount of time on a sunny day.  An alien visitor observing my habit could easily conclude that my behavior is instinctive.  Wrong.  It's learned.  Ever have basal cell carcinoma (skin cancer) removed from the tip of your nose?  I have and I have learned a lesson I'll never forget.  But what about belief in God?

Given a moment to think about it, most people would agree that people are not born believing in God.  We learn to believe in God, usually the God introduced to us by our parents. Most children in the western world also believe in Santa Claus, for a while anyway, until some troublemaker, a mean-spirited sister in my case, convinces them it's a lie or until they figure out on their own that it would be impossible for one person to drop off packages in every child's home (via filthy chimneys no less) even in their own neighborhood, let alone all kids around the world.  Some children suffer after they realize they've been "had", but not for long.  Other children withhold announcing their disbelief in the Santa myth so they won't disappoint their parents.  But, in the end, everything seems to work out.  Everyone seems to recover.

So, some beliefs are easy come/easy go.  The Santa myth is in that category. Belief in God is not in the easy come/easy go category and that takes us back to the question: If belief in God is not instinctive, how does it come about that it is as difficult for some people to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear of snakes?  Why is that not so for Santa, particularly in the face of the characteristics he shares with God?  Both Santa and God are usually depicted with white beards (Santa always, God sometimes).  More important than similarities in appearance, both Santa and God are omniscient.  They know everything about you.  They know when you are sleeping.  They know when you're awake.  But knowledge about your sleeping habits is nothing compared to their monitoring everything you do.  You can't get away from them.  They even have access to every blasted thought you’ve ever had.  Most important, they know when you've been good or bad (including having good and bad thoughts!) and that information is recorded in their ledgers.   So Santa and God are similar in lots of ways.  But they are different when it comes to omnipotence.  Compared with God's unlimited power, Santa's power is restricted.  A consequence of being good in the eyes of Santa might result in your getting a sled or the video game you wanted for Christmas.  A consequence of being bad could be an unwrapped, abandoned sweater Santa retrieved from a trash barrel.  Coal is also one of Santa's options.  The results of being good or bad in God's eyes are monumentally more consequential.  We need to think big when making this comparison.  Compare the sled or video game Santa gave you for being good, or the used sweater or chunk of coal he gave you for misbehaving against spending eternity in heaven in God's home for being good or suffering forever in a fiery pit called hell for not living up to his standards.  Think about it.  We're talking about all eternity.  We are talking about FOREVER.  And that brings us to the short answer to the question of it how comes about that it is as difficult for some people to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear of snakes.  Belief in God can become as critical to our survival now and especially forever after as avoidance of snakes is critical to a monkey to making it through the day.  Obviously, continued belief in Santa is not critical to our survival, at least not for very long.  But deep-running beliefs in God surrounded by fervent assurances of a blissful afterlife with family and friends as a reward for "good" behavior, countered by threats of suffering in hell for all eternity in the company of fellow infidels for “bad” behavior are difficult to shed.

On several occasions, Thomas Edison called such beliefs "bunk".  More recently, a group of outspoken critics of religion has emerged.  Victor Stenger (2009) calls them the “new atheists” and considers himself to be a charter member. Another member is Christopher Hitchens  (2007) who notes that many contemporary religious beliefs come from "a period of human history when nobody had the smallest idea what was going on."  Sam Harris (2004) shares this way of thinking when he writes that the sand strewn people who created the myth and passed it along "thought the world was flat" and lived at a time when "a wheel barrow would have been a breakthrough example of emerging technology."  These and a growing number of other prominent scientists who have gone public with their opinions including Richard Dawkins (2006), a leading “religion is bad for the world” spokesman, observe that there is simply no objective evidence available to support any of these ideas and that is particularly telling in the face of the steady outpouring of research that supports evolutionary models.  In this regard, Daniel Dennett (2006, p.60) asks, "But how, in the face of so much striking confirmation and massive scientific evidence, could so many Americans disbelieve in evolution?" and, by extension, continue to believe in religious dogma.   He answers his own question by writing "It is simple: they have been solemnly told that the theory of evolution is false by people they trust more than they trust scientists."   This is similar to Darwin's inculcation argument.  A story that has been told, retold, and reinforced in so many ways tends to stick and develop the kind of staying power capable of resisting stories that challenge it.

To vastly over simplify the current situation, two major stories or “theories” are in competition to explain the presence of life, human life in particular, on this planet.  For expository reasons, I am bundling together religious stories, most of which promise life after death, and contrasting them with the theory of evolution that promises death after life.  How does one decide which side makes most sense?  The prospect of life after death is certainly more appealing to most people than death after life, but there are other here-on-earth consequences that need to be considered, like participating in animosities against believers in religions other than one’s own.   So shouldn't it be a matter of breaking these stories down, thinking about them, pondering their origins and their implications, reasoning them out, looking at the evidence, and making a judgment about which stories are most credible?

From most scientific perspectives, there is no contest.  Scientific materialists, with reams of data supporting their position, should be able to claim an easy victory.  But notice their anguish and frustration after taking the prize as they wonder how it is possible that their impressive win continues to be challenged or completely disregarded by the opposition.   After all, isn’t it simply a matter of substituting one story, the theory of evolution, for another story, a story that, in large measure, relies on supernatural explanations of various phenomena that have long since been explained by science?   Certainly it seems more logical to accept an explicit theory replete with information that supports it than to endorse a theory for which there is no objective evidence?  The question is: how does one explain the fact that so many people continue to believe these stories, conduct their lives in accordance with them, guard against the intrusion of stories that contradict them, and are even willing to go to war to defend them when it is so clear that the stories have outlived their original purposes?  Is it due to "constant inculcation" as Darwin suggests?  Partly, I suspect, but it's more than constant inculcation, more than memorizing another person's story and making it one's own.  A good story, a memorable story, a story to live by, has to have a punch line and most religious stories have punch lines that pack a wallop.  The wallop has survival written all over it.   The lead up to the punch line of the world's most prominent religions is God is watching.  He knows whether or not you are following his rules.  He knows your complete history of obeying or disobeying his instructions.  He knows whether or not you have appropriately worshipped him.  He knows if you are a person of faith.  He’s kept track of your participation in required rituals.  Perhaps most important of all, he’s kept a record of your sins, especially the unforgivable ones.  And now here comes the punch line: Based on his observations, knowledge, and wisdom, he will determine the eternal, everlasting fate of your soul.  The belief that God is the final judge of your soul sits like an immovable, emotion-laden rock in minds of many believers. 

             Sometimes I wonder if the spokespersons for scientific atheism have any idea what they are up against.   They are good at understanding and organizing observed facts and investigating their implications.  But do they know anything about the staying power of internalized beliefs to which people cling as though their life depends on maintaining them?  Internalized beliefs can be as steadfast and unshakable as a healthy tree with roots that penetrate deep into the fertile ground.   Life-sustaining internalized beliefs are not to be tested in the minds of people who possess them.  In fact, in many instances, they are not readily available for testing because their source is so widely dispersed throughout the mind and the body.  To make matters even more complicated, internalized beliefs are protected by feelings that, like guard dogs, chase intruders away. Internalized beliefs are not to be fiddled with, not to be challenged, not to be touched.  Like a large boulder lying just beneath the surface of a stream that directs the flow of water around it, a solidly grounded internalized belief automatically, instantaneously, and effortlessly determines the acceptability and unacceptability of ideas coming its way in terms of whether or not that information represents a threat to the prospects of eternal existence.   

We can think of internalized beliefs as residing at the center of electro-magnetic fields that attract information that maintains their stability and repels information that has the potential of disturbing the balance.   The "job" of primary meaning-making beliefs is to stay put because they carry the burden of psychological survival.  In that way, they give every appearance of being instinctive. No thinking is required.

Darwin referred to the "not fully developed" brains of children as a potential reason for the durability of early-formed ideas.  Of course a great deal more is known about all aspects of brain development in children than was available to Darwin.  Instruments are available that permit researchers to literally watch neurons migrate, compete with rival neurons for permanent locations in one or another area of the brain, link up and communicate with other neurons, and become involved in systems that regulate and control visual tracking, movement, attention, hearing, language, and higher order functions like learning.   Although it seems like we know so much about the brain (and we do), we are still at the distant edges of understanding how it all works as an integrated whole.  Even memory remains a problem.  Why and where in the brain are some things clearly remembered and other things are difficult to reassemble or completely inaccessible?  Much of that remains a mystery.  However, we do know a few things about the conditions under which some memories are relatively accessible.  For instance, one well-established principle is we are more prone to remember things relevant to our personal lives than things that don’t directly affect us.  In other words, we tend to remember things that are relevant to that whatever-it-is we commonly refer to as the self.

                               What is this thing called the Self?

As Darwin observed, the infant's brain is a work in progress.  That is equally true of the self no matter how defined.  It would be convenient to leave it at that: "no matter how defined" because the concept of the self can be nearly as difficult to pin down as the concept of the soul.  On the surface, one might think the self should be easy to define.  Everyone assumes they have one and it must be important to us because we spend so much time thinking about it, promoting it, defending it, and comparing it with other “selves”.  It’s difficult to imagine getting through the day without it.   But the situation turns messy come time to define the concept.  However matters of the self are so central to the topic of the formation of both conscious and unconscious beliefs about the soul that we can’t avoid it.

Steven Pinker refers to the self as a byzantine bureaucracy (2009, p. 46).  Our question would be “what is the role of the byzantine bureaucracy in the development and maintenance of soul beliefs?” if we accepted this definition.  That would be a cumbersome place to start.  But let's not dismiss it prematurely.  The analogy between the self and a bureaucracy (I'm dropping the byzantine part) is not a bad place to begin.  Bureaucracies contain several divisions or departments that contain information that needs to be at an executive officer’s finger tips.  The sorts of items in the various departments that are essential for executive officers to get their jobs done  include information about life events, personal qualities, physical characteristics, skills, fears, on-going and previous thoughts, accomplishments, failures, goals, plans, desires, ambitions, resentments, values, morals, standards, memories, rules for regulating relationships with other people, possessions, demographic information (date of birth, location of birth, etc.), religious affiliation, and snippets of life stories that include high points, low points, and turning points. Think of all these items (and I have missed a large number) as components of the executive's toolbox.  Unless some circuits in the brain are damaged, they are available on a nearly instantaneous, on-call, whenever needed, basis.  We can think of the self as a composite of all its departments including the executive officer. 

This self, this "me" with all its toolbox components, takes time to develop.  The self I have just described is an adult self.  (Soon I will be referring to it as the “symbolic” self).  An infant is not born a "mini-me" placed on a straight-line track to becoming a full blown, mature person.  The adult self is a self that has evolved from other selves.  The adult self (the Freudian "ego" if you prefer that term) rests atop or in the midst of other selves that normally operate beneath the level of conscious awareness.  We must penetrate into the levels occupied by these "other selves" if we are to make progress in solving the puzzle of how certain beliefs take on the appearance of being instinctive. 

I have taken on two trailblazers, Daniel Stern and Antonio Damasio, as my primary guides through the topic of early self development.  Stern (1985) and Damasio (1994, 1999) are scientists of different stripes.  Stern is a child psychiatrist who eschews psychoanalytic speculation in favor of his own and other investigators' laboratory research with babies.   Damasio is a neurologist who has written extensively about brain development in children and the effects of brain injuries in adult patients.  Stern and Damasio are not collaborators. But both of them, operating from vastly different perspectives and building on the results of scores of investigations in their areas of specialty, have independently identified and converged on a few stages of self development that can be applied to our question of how some beliefs appear to be instinctive.    

Both Stern and Damasio write about the precursors of the stand alone "me" that the word "self" commonly conjures up.  They refer to these earlier selves as senses of self and their descriptions of these senses of self are remarkably similar. We begin with the earliest sense of self that Damasio calls the protoself. 

Senses of Self in Childhood

The Protoself

            An article titled, Study Reveals: Babies are Stupid, appeared in the Science section of the May 21, 1997 edition of The Onion, a newspaper that publishes fictional hilarity.  The report is summarized in the first two sentences:

In a surprising new study released Monday by UCLA's Institute For Child Development revealed that human babies, long thought by psychologists to be highly inquisitive and adaptable, are actually extraordinarily stupid. The study, an 18-month battery of intelligence tests administered to over 3,500 babies, concluded categorically that babies are "so stupid, it's not even funny."

 

            As a matter of fact, babies are not very "smart" in adult terms.  It takes them a couple of months before they can turn over, let alone sit up on their own.  The ability to walk seems to take forever for them to master.  And talking?  Forget it.  They can't even tell you what's wrong when they fuss, so you've got to guess. They spend a great deal of time on their backs staring blankly at the ceiling.   Fortunately, they're usually cute, adorable, huggable.  Lucky for them.  But don't be fooled.  They know one very critical thing.  They know they exist. 

At the very outset of life, infants know they exist without, of course, being consciously aware that they know they exist.  Run of the mill background activities and noises that occur in the bodies of adults are in the foreground for infants. All sorts of internal activity are required for organisms to remain alive.  The thumping heart must keep blood flowing; the internal temperature must remain within a few degrees of normalcy; food must be consumed and digested; solid and liquid waste materials build up and must be eliminated, and so on.   Most of these processes occur automatically.  Of course the infant is not aware that its body is converting food into glucose that is stored until it is reconverted into energy that nourishes its cells.  But the infant does experience hunger.  It experiences intestinal discomfort that is alleviated when waste is discharged.  Infants know (again, without knowing they know) all this is happening inside their bodies and that their bodies have boundaries.  Babies do not emerge from the womb in an undifferentiated, open-system state of confusion about where their bodies end and another body (the mother's body for instance) begins.  Instead, they are born with a sense of self, albeit a primitive sense of self compared to other senses of self in the making.  It is a subjective sense of self-awareness that is not cognitively represented or stored in memory.  It enables the infant to crudely differentiate itself from its environment.  It is implicit and unconscious and is largely comprised of feelings produced by sensations. 

Daniel Stern calls this early stage of selfhood the emergent self.  Antonio Damasio gives it a different label I’ve adopted: the protoself.  He describes the protoself as "a coherent collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions" (Damasio, 1999, p. 154). Although there might not be very much going on in an infant's brain in terms of knowledge gathering, there is a lot happening in the parts of the central nervous system devoted to keeping running record accounts of the condition of the internal and surface regions of the body.  The brain and the rest of the central nervous system do more than monitor the body.  They are designed to recognize and correct imbalances by making the sorts of adjustments aimed at maintaining a state of homeostasis.  As imbalances are corrected, the infant feels these alterations mostly in terms of increasing and decreasing tension. It is non-consciously aware that these feelings are its feelings.  They emanate from inside its body and from the body’s surface areas.   They are not "out there", not in the wallpaper or in the lamp or in the person attending to it.

The Core Self

In a couple of months, something referred to as the core self by both Stern and Damasio begins to emerge as an extension of this earliest sense of self.  The critical feature of the core self for present purposes is its bi-directionality.  It faces both inward and outward.  As it continues to map, monitor, and experience alterations in the internal milieu of the body, it makes use of its growing capacity to monitor events in the external world and notice that some of these events co-occur with alterations in the internal milieu.  In other words, core self experiences arrive on the heels of an infant's more advanced ability to represent moment-to-moment running record accounts of what's happening in the body and link these accounts with running record accounts of events in the world around it.  This double book keeping is essential to normal development.  The infant feels and "notices" a decrease in body tension that is associated with a welcoming smile on its mother's face or an increase in tension when a roughhousing brother or sister arrives on the scene.  These sorts of connections between shifts in feelings with shifts in the features of the outside world become the foundation for the development of the sorts of skills that are required for survival in a social world.  Note I use the word survival again.  Evolution is all about survival.

Of course survival is not foremost in babies’ minds.  In fact, it is nowhere in the baby's mind.  Through the process of random variations, some successful and most not successful, nature has preserved what works and has discarded errors.  What worked for our species is a brain that builds upon an emergent sense of self and a core sense of self, both of which are comprised of subjective experiences and the feelings that have become associated with them, and remembers actions linked with alleviating disruptions in the internal milieu of the body.  This sets the stage for the arrival of an objective sense of self.  

The Objective Self

You might be surprised to learn that up to about 18-months, children who catch glimpses of themselves in a mirror do not know they have just glanced at an image of themselves.  Prior to that time, the figure in the mirror represents an external object, a person that happens to pass by.  This is not conjecture.  It's a fact.  Were you to place a red mark on the forehead of a 12- or 13-month old child and position the child in front of a mirror, most likely it would attempt to wipe the smudge from the nose of the object reflected in the mirror.  That changes at about a year and a half.   Instead of reaching toward the object in the mirror, the child goes directly to the location on its own face where the mark has been placed and wipes it off. 

I had a ho-hum, la-de-da, tell me something interesting reaction when I first gained textbook knowledge about this phenomenon.   Big deal.  18-month old children can recognize themselves in the mirror.  But my attitude changed when I happened to see one of my sons gazing into a mirror when he was 18-months old, almost to the very day.  He was exploring the living room of a house we were visiting, when he climbed onto a couch that had a large mirror mounted on the wall behind it.  I looked up from a magazine I was reading at the very moment he saw himself in the mirror.  He looked away and then immediately looked back at the mirror.  With more excitement than I think I have ever been able to muster, he sang out "That's Sam!"  It was a stunning, OMG (Oh My God) experience for him.  In an instant, he knew in a way he had never known before who it was that carried the name Sam.  Of course he had known his name for many months.  Prior to his revelation, he knew people were talking to him when they said, "Sam, come here," or "Sam, be careful."  But a new dawn had risen.  In one stunning, Big Bang, moment, a mystery had been solved and his joy was palpable. His objective self had been unveiled and he was delighted to own it.  A new level of consciousness had coalesced and henceforth he occupied the center of his own universe. 

The Symbolic Self

The attainment of an objective sense of self might not be as special as I make it out to be, particularly in the face of evidence that elephants, orangutans, chimps, porpoises, and probably some other animals also recognize themselves in a mirror.  They too can locate the spot that has been experimentally placed on their own bodies and attempt to remove it from its actual location instead of trying to rub it off their reflection.  But for humans, this milestone in the evolution of a sense of self is a stepping-stone for the development of another sense of self that is unique to our species.  It is a precursor to the arrival of the symbolic self.  The symbolic self is unique to humans partly because it relies so heavily on language.  Daniel Stern is specific about that as he refers to the symbolic self as the verbal self.  It's the self we talk about.  It's the self we represent to ourselves in our minds. Antonio Damasio calls it the extended self and that helps us flesh out its various dimensions.  Adults can "extend" themselves into the past by recalling what it was like on the beach with our friends last summer, or what they were doing when they first heard about the tragic events of 9/11/01.  We can also extend ourselves into the future.  This is a remarkable ability.  We can imagine ourselves looking at sites we've never seen.  Have you ever been to the Great Wall in China?  I haven't, but at this very moment I am at the base of a portion of the wall looking at some immense boulders wondering how on earth they were they dragged to this location.  I am surrounded by a cool, musty, but not unpleasant aroma.  I've never been in New Orleans in the summer but, in my mind, I'm there now and I can't wait to get to an air-conditioned restaurant where I can cool off.  The smell of pan-fried shrimp attracted me to this particular restaurant where I have just taken a seat in the corner next to a window that looks out onto an alley.  Now if I could only get the attention of the waiter who is more interested in talking on his cell phone than in taking my order.

Normally, our extended selves don't take us to China or to New Orleans. More typically, they assist us in taking the next step.  Daniel Gilbert (2006) calls it "nexting".  I like that term.  We are nearly always "nexting" in our minds; preparing ourselves for what is likely to come next.  We do this by projecting mental representations of ourselves into the future in anticipation of, or preparation for, moving on to the next thing.  We are so familiar with this process, it is such an integral part of our everyday lives that we don't realize it occupies such a prominent place in our existences.  In fact, nexting is so natural it can be extremely difficult to rein it in.  Elaborate training programs have been marketed to assist people to operate in the "now".

The capacity to cast images of ourselves into the future does not come directly after children recognize themselves as objects.  Future thinking takes a couple more years to develop and many more years to refine.  It arrives relatively late in childhood, between the ages of 4 and 5 in most cases. There are some intervening skills necessary to master before a child is able to navigate from point A (the objective self) to point B (projecting images of the symbolic self in the future).  One skill is essential.  It’s called episodic memory. 

Most researchers abide by the distinction Tulving (1983) makes between episodic memory (remembering things that happened in a person’s past) and semantic memory (memory of words, names, and various facts).  A person can be loaded up with semantic memory but if that person cannot remember anything from the past, mental time travel or long distance “nexting” is not possible.  Without being able to recall the past, the cupboard is bare when it comes to imagining the future.

A few pages back, I wrote about the experiences that my “symbolic” self underwent when I shipped it off to New Orleans.  It was hot and I had a difficult time getting the attention of the waiter.  I recall numerous episodes of being uncomfortably warm plenty times in my life and that made it easy to recreate that condition in New Orleans. And there have been times in restaurants when I could have sworn that I had become invisible.  Those memories assisted me in creating an imaginary visit to New Orleans.  Not only was I able to imagine being in New Orleans.  I also felt what it was like to be there.  I now know to never again go to the restaurant where it was so difficult to get the attention of a server.  You might be thinking, “The man is insane.  He’s talking about never going back to a restaurant he’s never been to in the first place.”

Not so fast.  My example, absurd as it is, is completely covered by Dan Gilbert, the same Dan Gilbert who gave us the term “nexting”.  In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert writes:

Our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into future circumstances and then ask ourselves how it feels to be there.  Rather than calculating utilities with mathematical precision, we simply step into tomorrow’s shoes and see how well they fit.  Our ability to project ourselves forward in time and experience events before they happen enables us to learn from our mistakes and evaluate actions without taking them.  If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it (pp. 262-3).

 

I’m sure Gilbert would not object to my modifying one of his sentences: Instead of “…we simply step into tomorrow’s shoes and see how well they fit”, I prefer “we step into tomorrow’s shoes and see how they feel.”  He says that in the sentence preceding it (“we ask ourselves how it feels to be there”), but I want to underscore the idea of feeling what it is like to be in tomorrow’s shoes.

What allows us to feel when in tomorrow’s shoes is the continued operation of our proto and core senses of self.  Let me explain using the following analogy.  In the early days of space exploration, three-stage rocket ships were familiar sights on launching pads.   There was a booster rocket that got the ship off the ground.  A middle stage rocket took over after it had been disengaged from the booster.  Finally a satellite was released from the middle stage rocket and was on its own.  In the meantime, the booster and the middle stage rockets either fell back to earth, burned up, or became space trash.  In either case, they had done their jobs and were of no further use.   Compare that with a three-stage theory of self development, with symbolic self or the adult “mind” resting atop the proto- and cores selves.  If our multilayered system paralleled the operation of early space crafts, the proto- and core senses of self would vanish as soon as our minds had been launched.  Frequently we become so attached to our “verbal”, or “extended”, or “symbolic” senses of self that we think that’s all there is.  One of the strongest messages of this paper is the symbolic or thinking self does not replace these earlier senses of self.  It builds upon them. It makes full use of their life-sustaining services. When the symbolic self is on main stage, the proto and core selves are always nearby monitoring any alterations in the internal milieu of the body and these alterations announce themselves as alterations in feelings.  As valuable as the thinking brain is, we need remain aware that it is one feature of the central nervous system.  The thinking brain itself does not constitute the entire central nervous system.  The rest of it, notably the peripheral nervous system, extends down into and throughout the entire the body and signals are constantly being sent both from the brain to regions beneath it and to the brain in ways that enable feelings to influence thoughts and thoughts to influence feelings.  So when I think about being ignored by a waiter, I feel annoyed even though nothing has happened.

Okay, now back to children.  After they are able to remember what happened yesterday or the day before, that is, after they have mastered the art of creating and gaining access to episodic memory, they are set for the next step in cognitive development.  They are ready for mental time travel.  The platform for that sort of activity is pretty much in place by age 4 or 5.

Mental Time Travel

  Mental time travel is unique to human beings.  Two skills, language and mental time travel (I will shorten the latter to MTT) are the two most prominent “traits” that separate us from all other members of the animal kingdom.  It is a matter of considerable speculation about when these abilities evolved.  The groundwork for the emergence of these abilities took millions of years to be established.  Language and the capacity to speak it hinged upon the evolution of brain connections (often referred to as “modules” by cognitive scientists) that became coordinated with nature’s experiments with lung capacity, the position of the thorax, the length of the neck, and numerous other physiological features.  It’s very nearly certain that MTT was the result of the gradual reorganization of the brain to the point where the frontal lobe began to occupy a larger percentage of the makeup of the brain.  Systems or modules in that area of the brain are essential for planning future activities. 

Then, suddenly according to some, the ability to speak and the ability to project images of the self into the future formed a kind of piggyback agreement and many things began to happen that never happened before.  Of course we have to be leery of the word “suddenly” because current speculation is this partnership occurred sometime between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago.  There is paleontological evidence that an explosion of new activities occurred sometime during this period of time.  Some refer to this era as the “Cultural Big Bang” (See, for example, Ramachandran, 2001).  Remnants of multi-part tools, tailored clothes, art, and relics from religious rituals have been unearthed and carbon dated to roughly 40,000 years ago.  We can assume that MTT played an enormous role in these developments.  I need not belabor the adaptive advantage that is provided by the ability to imagine future options and, as Gilbert notes, experience events before they happen, to learn from our imagined mistakes and evaluate actions without taking them.

            But who learns from purely imagined events?  That’s a silly question.  Obviously, the person engaged in mental time travel is the learner and learning takes place because the traveler brings something along with her: to wit, consciousness.  Now things are getting interesting.  I think you will agree that when you engage in mental time travel, you are conscious that you still occupy your body.  The imaginer is you, let’s call it you #1.   However you are also conscious of the fact that you (call it you #2) are in the picture of the imagined scene.  In other words, you #1 and you #2 are in two places at the same time.  I think it is safe to say that human beings are unparalleled in our ability to do that.  It’s a trait that makes us a breed apart.  It has been a critical feature of how we’ve got our business done.

          But it has not just been all business.  It is fun to have a mind that allows us to be in one location and imagine being in all sorts of other places.  It’s pure magic. Life would be barren without that capacity.  It allows us to be the source of our own entertainment.  Our inner lives brighten up.  Our emotions are stirred.  We can insult other people in our minds without them knowing it.  We can stage performances that will never be performed.  Nonetheless, in our minds, we were magnificent.  And the really neat thing is the show is completely private.  We can avert catastrophes that haven’t the slightest chance of ever happening and dive into a pool in that middle of a stream from 100 foot cliffs without making a ripple in the water.

            But there is a downside to consciousness.  While our ability to physically be in one location and, without moving, consciously imagine ourselves in other locations combined with our ability to make choices based on what we “see” and on how it “feels” to be in those other locations has resulted in an unsurpassed mastery of the environment, it has also led to the inevitable conscious realization that we are ultimately destined to die.

            Imagine how the idea of personal death affects the proto-and core senses of self.  Keep in mind what I previously said about the bi-directionality of the core self.  It creates a running record account of the condition of the internal milieu of the body and coordinates alterations of that milieu with events in the external world.  But its attention is not restricted to the external world.  It also attends to thoughts. Thoughts alone can alter the internal condition of the body.  And the thought of dying creates painful internal havoc that is fully captured by the word terror. 

            Nature has designed us to survive.  Nature has designed us not only to be but also to be aware of being, and, to a very great extent, we enjoy that set of circumstances.  But as our traveling selves venture here and there, it is inevitable that there will come a time it travels too far and returns with some very bad news.  To wit, it returns with the message that someday you will die. The thought goes through the body like a lightning bolt.  It generates feelings that are completely unacceptable and places the body in a state of intense discomfort. This alteration of feelings does not go unnoticed by the core self.  After all it’s the core self’s responsibility to monitor such changes and make running record accounts of  events in the external world that are associated with the alleviation of internal tension. 

Ernst Becker (1973) wrote extensively about the consequences of the uniquely human awareness of death.  Other species are spared from that burden due to their inability to freeze time and see themselves in the third person.  But when we project ourselves into the future, our abstract understanding of the ultimate fate of each living organism is suddenly personalized and we are horrified.

Recognition of our mortality, according to Becker, runs deeper than an intellectual understanding of Nature's design.  The idea of our death registers emotionally and we are dumbfounded by the prospect of ceasing to exist.  The prospect of dying is an outrageous contradiction to "instincts" to live.  Becker argues that the dread that accompanies the thought of our own death can be so overpowering that we must identify and embrace a strategy to defend against constant reminders of its inevitability.

One of Becker’s principle arguments is cultures are designed to operate as buffers against death anxiety.  One buffer is culture itself.  In this regard, Becker makes a case for the intriguing idea that one of the main functions of culture is to distract people from being obsessed about their own deaths.  The extreme version of his argument is the fear of death spearheaded the invention of culture and the institutions it harbors.[1]  Prominent in the mix of institutions that serve as buffers against the fear of death are religions.

Most religions make a distinction between the body and the soul or spirit.  Acknowledging the fact that all bodies eventually die, decay, and rot away, nearly all religions offer a partial reprieve from facing the full impact of that poignant reality by positing an immortal "essence" that is released at the moment that its temporary material "carrier" ceases to exist.  Believers are told that death is not to be feared; it is to be welcomed as the next stage of existence.   This is an astonishingly effective solution to the problem of death.  People die, but not really.  Their souls survive to see another day.  A long day.  An eternal day. 

But who in their right minds would accept the idea of a soul that is separate from the body?  My surprise answer is nearly everybody in their “right minds” finds that idea to be perfectly acceptable.  Even 5 year-olds are already well-practiced at imagining a self (or a soul if you prefer) that exists both inside and outside the boundaries of the body.  In the words of Paul Bloom, we are “natural dualists.”  We have a physical self, an indisputable I that occupies the body, and another self, an intangible symbolic self, that lives, feels, and has experiences and sensations in different realms of existence.  This other self, this soul, does not obey the laws governing physical bodies.  Tell children they have souls and they are ready to believe. The information already fits their experiences.  As explained next, tell them at a well timed moment that their souls will out-live their bodies and they will thank you

The Direct Route to Internalized Soul Beliefs

Now we are prepared to return to ideas contained in the quotation from Darwin cited at the beginning of this treatise where he states that children’s belief in God and, by extension, their belief in the survival of souls are the results of “constant inculcation”.  Inculcation for sure, but “constant” is an exaggeration.  Inculcation is never constant.  It’s periodic. A phrase best suited to the point I want to make is “timely inculcation”. A perfectly timed insertion of the idea that the soul survives death into the mind of a child plants a seed that, properly nourished, has the capability of extending its roots to the point where it becomes a permanent fixture.  Like the boulder beneath the surface of a stream I mentioned earlier, a firmly affixed afterlife belief separates the flow of ideas that come its way according to whether or not they threaten its stability.

            The ideal time to plant the God seed and the everlasting life of the soul is when a child catches its first glimpse at the prospects of its death.  A colleague reports that her daughter, four years old at the time, came charging out her room an hour after she normally would have been asleep for the night.  She was crying.  Trembling, she declared, “I don’t want to be a thing that dies!”  For several months she had engaged in mental time travel as witnessed by her habit of asking her mother to “tell me about the days” as she was being tucked in bed.  That was her way of initiating a discussion of plans for the upcoming day(s).  It was her shorthand for asking to be informed about what she could look forward to in the morrow(s).  With a well established episodic memory in place, she could position herself in the following day’s shoes and feel how they felt.  In the evening she experienced the dreadful thought of death, her mother’s best guess was her daughter’s time traveling self had gone a bit too far and had returned with that piece of solemn information that so severely jolted her insides she was driven to seek an antidote to calm her down.  The antidote in this instance was a hug from her mother and the words, “Don’t worry dear, you have a very long life ahead of you.” The scene was repeated one more time two evenings later.  Same words from her child daughter, same reply from her mother.  And that was it.  “You have a long life ahead of you,” was sufficient to serve as a temporary patch over a wound that would find other ways to partially heal itself in subsequent years.

              A potentially more powerful sedative to calm the panic when children first discover and personalize the idea of death is to tell them not to worry about it because God will take care of them.  It’s such an easy solution to the problem of an internal milieu that’s bursting at its seams.  Wham!  In one well-timed sentence, “Don’t worry, God will take care of you,” an idea that has great promise of being solidified into enduring internalized belief is planted.  Of course, that statement alone won’t do the trick.  But there’s no rush to provide the details of God’s plan as long as the child gets the basic idea that people die, but, the souls of people who take good care them, live forever and ever.  In sum, if you believe in God and obey his instructions, you will survive death. 

            In summer, 2010, an oil drilling rig operated by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, collapsed, sunk and damaged a well head nearly a mile under sea.  Throughout the summer months, millions of gallons of oil spewed out of the damaged pipeline as an environmental nightmare along the Louisiana Coastline and elsewhere unfolded.  After several failed attempts, the well was finally sealed.  Heavy mud and concrete did the trick. Any future work on or near the pipe must be done carefully so the cap remains undisturbed. 

            The analogy I am about to make between the surge of confusing and painful feelings that shoot through the body when thoughts of one’s death are pondered and the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico and attempts to cap them both will test your patience, but the parallels enable me to make an important observation.  Children react with horror at the idea of death.  We have been designed by nature to survive and part of that design leads us to automatically react emotionally to pre-programmed or learned signals that something in the environment is threatening our existence.  Normally, we think of threats in the environment as existing “out there” like a tornado, an angry animal heading in our direction, or an open hand ready to slap a wrist.  But children, particularly after the onset of mental time travel, are able to emotionally respond to images in their internal environments as readily as they respond to events in the external world.  This ability is the cornerstone of an evolved capacity that probably got our ancestors through the bottleneck of survival; to wit, the ability to think ahead, to “next”, and see how the shoes feel.  But we are ill-equipped to deal with the emotional turmoil that is aroused by thoughts of our own death.  The turmoil is unbearable.  It must be abated.  It cannot continue.  The flood of emotions must be capped. 

            Unlike the temporary (“You’ve got a long life ahead of you”) patch that reduced my friend’s daughter’s anxiety about death, the words, “God will take care of you,” if properly timed and later reinforced, has the makings of a permanent seal. You will not die if you believe in God.  Henceforth, when the idea of death arises (even before it reaches the level of consciousness), the tranquilizer is automatically released and an unbearable tangle of emotions is averted.

The Indirect Route to Internalized Soul Beliefs

            The example of the 4-year old girl who protested against the idea that she fell into the category of a “thing” that ultimately dies is a special case.  Stark episodes like that are not easy to come by.  I’ve asked hundreds of people to tell me when the notion of death first occurred to them.  Most of the responses have ranged from “Hmm. Interesting question. I don’t remember” to “I don’t like to talk about death.”   Of course I am most interested in answers to my follow-up question, “What were you told when you asked about death?”  But when respondents have nothing to say in response to my first question, asking a follow-up question is useless. 

            I have gone so far as to offer extra credit to students in my courses to write brief descriptions of what their parents recall telling them about death when they were youngsters or what they themselves recall asking other people about death and the responses they received.  Students love extra credit opportunities, but not that one.  In the two years I have made the “opportunity” available to hundreds of students, only a half dozen have responded and all reports describe “when the cat died” sorts of memories.  (For the record, 5 cats and 1 dog went to heaven).   I’m sure there is a reservoir of private, family stories that are more to the point of my interests, but I have been unable to access them.  People do not like to talk about death or at least people do not want to talk to me about death.

One explanation for this phenomenon is worth exploring in some detail.  It could be that it is so difficult for people recall times when they talked about death is because cultures are such efficient buffers against thinking about death.  Recall Becker’s proposal: Cultures are created to distract people from being paralyzed by the prospects of death.  It is difficult to fear something if you rarely think about it, even if it lurks in the back of one’s mind.  In support of Becker’s position, one thing that cultures and the institutions they harbor do very well is they keep people busy.  There are roles to fill, skills to master, taxes to pay or to protest, feuds to maintain, obligations to perform, gutters to repair, bills to pay, wars to fight, courses to pass, dreams and ambitions to pursue, mates to find, crops to grow, mouths to feed, and worldviews to be learned and adopted.  Most people don’t have time to ruminate about death.

However, it is difficult for me to imagine that all the stuff we’ve created around us, all the errands we run, the petty arguments that fill our days, all the deadlines we are desperate to meet, the buildings we erect/take down/and re-erect, etc., are present-day results of our distant ancestors designing a remedy for obsessing about death.  Instead, I suspect that the footings for what we refer to as culture were originally dug to protect the living.  Along the way, particularly after consciousness became a hominid trait and our ancient ancestors became cognizant of their inevitable deaths, new scripts that dealt with matters of the afterlife were added to existing myths and became part of the standard lore. 

             In modern times, children born into a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or any other family (including atheistic families) that adheres to specific religious or nonreligious perspective are exposed to their family narratives.  Although children are frequently explicitly taught what to believe in their homes and religious classes, a great deal of the learning is implicit; by way of observing and copying the actions of others.  The seeds of an ideology are sown and the prominent scripts that have been crafted and revised over many centuries are internalized and offer ready-made answers to basic questions like “How did we get here?”, “What is our purpose?”, “What happens when we die?”  Children who are well-rehearsed in the stories of their culture need not explicitly ask such questions.  They already know the answers.  They have heard about heaven and hell, or reincarnation, or other versions of afterlife beliefs.  They already know about God’s will, the Day of Judgment, and what actions are required to remain in God’s favor or are destined to incur his wrath.  In sum, they know what they are required to believe in order to be integral members of their “tribes”.[2]    Modern day tribes (families, religious institutions, nations) provide guidelines about how to be a person of worth in the context of like-minded persons and the consequences of violating group standards.   It is essential that the group’s customs, traditions, and beliefs be maintained because, without them, without the centuries-old lore regarding the meaning of life in which buffers against the terror of death are embedded, most people would be in a constant state of existential panic. 

            I suspect that what I am calling the “indirect” route to internalized soul beliefs is a more common way of transmitting assumptions about the fate of the soul than the “direct” route.  But it matters not which route is taken.  The results are the same.  Soul beliefs are internalized, rendered non-conscious, and, when activated, automatically defend against the intrusion of ideas that threaten their life-sustaining, death-denying, afterlife assumptions.

Bringing Light to Non-Conscious Assumptions

            In large measure, I agree with the oft heard sentiment that people should be free to believe whatever gets them through the day.  Who am I to challenge the idea that better days are ahead or that rewards for conducting this life correctly can be postponed until one enters the next life?   I have no interest in undermining hope.  But my endorsement of that sentiment is cut short when it is used to mobilize support for believers in a one tradition to convince themselves that they’ve got it right and others have gotten it wrong.

Terrible wars have been fought over whose version of God is correct.  Heaven is generally conceived as a gated community and only those who follow the correct path are assured a place of residence.  Sometimes the “correct” path involves making the lives of people on a different path miserable.  Killing them is an option.  It is likely that this has been a problem since the early stirrings of religion, but it is conceivable that the most immediate manifestation of the problem is the most dangerous.  Given the fact that God has been used throughout human history to justify torture and extermination of millions of people, it doesn't take a jaundiced eye to notice that some spokespersons in competing religious camps seem to be willing to arrange a nuclear war to settle the matter of whose God is right once and for all.  Some believe that such a war is inevitable.  It would fulfill God's prophecy as some have interpreted it.  Souls would be released and set free to travel to their final designations.  It is not difficult to locate religious fanatics who are anxious to keep God's plan on schedule by encouraging nations to get on with it and hasten the day when he keeps his promise. 

The prospects of making use of non-conscious assumptions regarding the everlasting life of the soul to fan the sparks of rage against enemies that hold different beliefs might diminish if somehow non-conscious soul-related assumptions could be lifted from their comfort zones that are normally beyond reach of consciousness. 

I have referred to non-conscious assumptions as permanent fixtures.  But that’s not completely accurate.  They are only permanent as long as they remain undisturbed, as long as no attention is paid to how they automatically sort the incoming and outgoing mail.  Although internalized beliefs appear to operate like instincts in that they are embedded in neural networks that are automatically activated by various stimuli (like thoughts of death for example), they are learned responses, not in-born responses.  In that context, just like any other learned assumptions that have become integrated into our senses of self, the spotlight of consciousness can be brought to assumptions regarding the soul and that strikes me as a worthwhile exercise.  It has the potential of putting the brakes on automaticity of soul-beliefs of the sort that distorts our judgment, limits our understanding of a complex world, and perpetuates animosities that can lead to harm-doing of the worst possible kind.

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citations

Becker, E. (1973).  The denial of death.  New York: The Free Press.

Damasio, A. (1994).  Descartes' error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New

            York: Avon Books.

Damasio, A. (1999).  The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of

            consciousness.  New York: Harcourt Brace.

Darwin, C. (1958).  The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1808-1882. Ireland: Collins

             Press.  

Dawkins, R.  (2006).  The God delusion.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Dennett, D. C. (2006).  Breaking the spell.  New York: Viking Penguin.

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Harris, S. (2004).  The end of faith. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hitchens, C. (2007).  God is not great.  New York: Hachette Book Group USA

Pinker, P. (2009).  My Genome, My Self.  New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2009.

Ramachandran, V. S.  Mirror neurons and imitative learning as a driving force behind

            “the great leap forward” in human evolution.  Available on the Internet at

            http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_index.html.

Sedikides, C., & Skowronski, J.J. (1997).  The symbolic self in evolutionary context.

            Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 1, No 1, pp. 80-102.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004).  The Cultural Animal: Twenty

            Years of Terror Management Theory and Research.  In Greenberg, J (Ed);

            Koole, S. L. (Ed). & Pyszczynski, T. (Ed).  Handbook of Experimental Existential

            Psychology, pp. 13-34.  New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Stenger, V. (2009).  The New Atheism.  Amherst NY: Prometheus Books.

Stern, D. N. (1985).  The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis

            and developmental psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Tulving, E. (1983).  Elements of episodic memory.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Wade, N. (2009).  The faith instinct.  New York, NY.  The Penguin Press.



[1] At first glance, the idea that cultures operate as shields against ruminating about death might strike the reader as interesting, but a bit farfetched, fanciful, too “out there”, perhaps even preposterous.  That was the general opinion about Becker’s propositions until three social psychologists (Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon) initiated what has turned out to be over 30 years of research that has provided what I consider to be indisputable support for predictions these and other scholars have derived from Becker’s theory.   The prediction most relevant to this paper is reminders of death strengthen support for features of one’s culture that provide a sense of safety and security, and intensify hostilities towards people who are not members of respondents’ in-group.  This prediction has been affirmed in multiple ways in multiple studies.  In sum, culturally constructed “lids” to keep the idea of death at bay, become ever so prominent when death is made salient in the minds of people who have participated in hundreds of these investigations.  (There are hundreds of references to these studies, all of which are conducted under the label of Terror Management Theory (TMT).  A good place to begin is Solomon, S., et al. (2004) , an article the reviews 20-years of TMT research.

[2] Nicholas Wade (2009, see especially Chapter 3) stresses the “dog eat dog” nature of ancient tribes that roamed the savannas in search of food.  Like modern “street gangs”, they didn’t like each other.  The tribes most likely to survive were the ones that were so tightly bonded that their members would be willing to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of the group.  Wade also emphasizes the role of rituals and shared belief systems played in maintaining group cohesiveness.  Traces of  tribalism and the employment of religious rituals and practices to keep the group together are so evident in the modern world that Wade proposes that we may have inherited brain structures or neural circuitry that enable us to “recognize that our survival is contingent upon adopting the practices of the primary group to which we belong.