I recently read a book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Under its instruction, I have begun to learn how to examine myself whenever I experience difficult feelings or moods, and identify the thoughts underpinning these feelings. I have begun learning to propose alternative thoughts or ideas to myself, to stand back like an outsider and conduct a Socratic conversation with myself, weighing up the evidence like a detective and ardently trying to find some means of latching on to the alternative, less troubling thought.
I like CBT’s rational, evidence-seeking approach to feeling better. It fits with the way I tend to solve problems. However, it has got me thinking a bit differently about the whole process of belief formation.
The book made the point that beliefs are really just ingrained patterns of thinking. They are thoughts – layer upon layer of thoughts, even – that have become somewhat automatic through repeated use, and that we readily accept on an emotional level. My usual concept of a belief would be like some kind of core, a nucleus in my mind, around which my thoughts obediently orbit… I’m now thinking there may be no “core”, but belief may simply be a label we put on the net effect of all the various trajectories of our thinking.
This is a messier picture, but a compelling one, and one in which it becomes clear that change should be possible if these ingrained thinking habits are consciously changed. In a sense, CBT is about choosing new beliefs. And this is where it has got me thinking. I used to passionately say that we don’t choose what we believe. After all, with religion, I ended up with beliefs that were almost the opposite of what I’d hoped them to be. If CBT works, how is it possible to choose a belief, and why was I unable to in that case?
The interplay of reason, emotion and belief… how does it all work?
I think there must be some emotional feedback that reinforces a thought and turns it into a belief. Feeling convinced of something – it may be a process of reasoning that got me there, but it’s feeling convinced that matters. If I have a brain that enjoys logic and feels all is well when things make sense, then my beliefs will often reflect what makes sense to me. On the other hand if my brain likes to explore ideas through experiencing them, then my beliefs will tend to come through convincing experiences.
Reason impacts on our beliefs, but perhaps only through the emotion it causes; and it has to compete with other influences too. I have often noticed how hard it is to think rationally in the midst of strong emotion. Emotional turbulence, like a storm, upsets the landscape of reason; the peaks and troughs of conviction that would normally indicate where truth and falsehood lie – flattened, in the wake of an emotional hurricane that blows my thinking wherever it pleases.
What does it mean to say that something feels “true”? Clearly we don’t just believe whatever gives us the most happy feelings. CBT is often needed for climbing out of thought patterns that produce very negative feelings – feelings that still somehow reinforce the underlying thinking, perhaps out of a sense that it is helpful to us in some way. It seems to be quite complicated. In the end, maybe belief is still somewhat involuntary: we can present various thoughts to our own mind for it to consider, but we cannot force it to latch on to any one of them – there needs to be some emotional connection with it for it to “take”. Or does there? – would this happen eventually by brute force? Must I sweat my brow with all my detective work trying to find logical reasons that give me a “truth” feeling towards a new idea, or could I simply brainwash myself, repeating the idea like a mantra, until its helpfulness becomes apparent and sufficient to reinforce it as a belief?
I recoil at the idea of believing something because it is “helpful” – as if the truth doesn’t matter as long as what you believe benefits you in some way. I have been taught to be critical and skeptical and to value evidence and reason over these more subjective reasons for belief. Yet I see that I do this all the time! I choose to think that I am no good at [X*] because this belief feels helpful – it should prepare me for difficulty, and it should protect me from the horrible experience of unexpectedly failing at [X]. Where is the evidence for that belief? It doesn’t matter to me! And will I easily give it up in exchange for a more reasonable idea? Not without a fight.
What’s more, science seems to be revealing that being biased is a normal part of life and may be important to our well-being: most people have an elevated sense of their own abilities (something like 90% of people believe that they are better-than-average drivers…!) – those of us who see ourselves through the cold lens of realism are anxious and depressed, not better off. Another example of bias is the way happily married people still see their partner through rose-tinted glasses even after many years together – idealism, not realism, is connected with happiness in a shared life with another person. Knowing this, do I want realism? Do I want to strive to see reality as rationally and objectively as I possibly can? A year ago I would have said yes to that. As a refugee from religion, reason is salvation! Now, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps I will begin experimenting with selecting new helpful beliefs with which to brainwash myself, and let you know how I get on. 🙂
(* insert just about anything here)