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Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth


Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth Cover

ISBN13: 9780743274975
ISBN10: 0743274970
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: None
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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

WHY DO YOU BELIEVE THE THINGS YOU BELIEVE? Do you remember events differently from how they really happened? Where do your superstitions come from? How do morals evolve? Why are some people religious and others nonreligious? Everyone has thoughts and questions like these, and now Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman expose, for the first time, how our complex views emerge from the neural activities of the brain. Bridging science, psychology, and religion, they demonstrate, in simple terminology, how the brain perceives reality and transforms it into an extraordinary range of personal, ethical, and creative premises that we use to build meaning, value, spirituality, and truth into our lives. When you come to understand this remarkable process, it will change forever the way you look at the world and yourself.

Supported by groundbreaking research, including brain scans of people as they pray, meditate, and even speak in tongues, Newberg and Waldman propose a new model for how deep convictions emerge and influence our lives. You will even glimpse how the mind of an atheist works when contemplating God. Using personal stories, moral paradoxes, and optical illusions, the authors demonstrate how our brains construct our fondest assumptions about reality, offering recommendations for exercising your most important "muscle" in order to develop a more life-affirming, flexible range of attitudes.

You'll discover how to:

  • Recognize when your beliefs are altered by others
  • Guard against mental traps and prejudicial thinking
  • Distinguish between destructive and constructive beliefs
  • Cultivate spiritual and ethical ideals

Ultimately, we must always return to our beliefs. From the ordinary to the extraordinary, they give meaning to the mysteries of life, providing us with our individual uniqueness and the ability to fill our lives with joy. Most important, though, they give us inspiration and hope, beacons to guide us through the light and dark corners of the soul.


This scientific exploration illustrates how man is biologically driven to create and maintain a system of beliefs.

About the Author

Andrew Newberg, MD, is an associate professor of Radiology and Psychiatry and an adjunct assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and also director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind. He is co-author of Why God Won't Go Away and The Mystical Mind. He lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Mark Robert Waldmanis an associate fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. A therapist and the author of nine books, he founded the academic journal Transpersonal Review. He lives in Agoura, California.

Table of Contents



1 The Power of Belief

2 A Mountain of Misperceptions: Searching for Beliefs in a Haystack of Neurons

3 Reality, Illusions, and the Aunt Who Cried Wolf: The Construction of Perceptual Beliefs

4 Santa Claus, Lucky Numbers, and the Magician in Our Brain: The Biology of Conceptual Beliefs


5 Parents, Peas, and "Putty Tats": The Development of Childhood Beliefs

6 Ordinary Criminals Like You and Me: The Gap between Behavior and Moral Beliefs


7 Nuns, Buddhists, and the Reality of Spiritual Beliefs

8 Speaking in Tongues

9 The Atheist Who Prayed to God

10 Becoming a Better Believer

Epilogue: Life, the Universe, and Our "Ultimate" Beliefs




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Research Fellow, November 10, 2006 (view all comments by Research Fellow)
This fascinating book examines how human beings construct their beliefs about everything: how we map the realities of the world, build moral and political beliefs, and develop religious and spiritual beliefs about the universe. The authors base their premises on neurobiological research and then they integrate their findings with contemporary psychology and sociology without ever becoming overly technical, a difficult feat when it comes to explaining the neurological processes of the brain.
The introductory chapter introduces the basic premises of the book, using the case history of a man who riddled with cancer and is about to die in a research hospital at UCLA. Placebo injections are given, and within a week all tumors disappear, but when newspaper reports describe the ineffectiveness of the medicine the patient thought he was taking, the tumors returned. The doctor convinced the patient that a "new and improved" medication was available, and again the tumors disappeared. The FDA then pronounced the medical study a failure, and again, the tumors returned. The authors return to this story throughout the book to explain how our beliefs can deeply influence the neurobiological processes in the brain.
In Chapter 3, the authors use numerous optical illusions to How the brain incorporates perceptual errors into its maps of the world. In this way, they show how many supernatural beliefs are literally perceived as real within the brain. In the next chapter, they show how different cognitive functions contribute to the foundations of everyday beliefs about reality, and how a child?s brain is prone towards seeing monsters, believing in Santa Claus, and relying on magic to explain unusual occurrences in the world. The authors also show what happens in the brain when adults attempt to perceive the unperceivable, i.e. God and other spiritual realms.
In Chapter 5, Parents, Peas, and ?Putty Tats,? Newberg opens his chapter on developmental neuropsychology with a story of how his mother got him to eat his plate of peas. He uses this cute tale to show how early childhood beliefs can shape the remainder of one?s adult life. The authors show how easy it is to implant false memories in children and adults, why autobiographical memories are faulty, and why false memories remain imprinted in various circuits of the brain well into adulthood. They also offer a brilliant integration of neurological development with the psychological development of morality (unfortunately, our brains begin to deteriorate in our thirties, and the likelihood of us changing our beliefs, especially inaccurate ones, becomes less and less the older we get.
As the title of Chapter 6 implies (Ordinary Criminals Like You and Me) we are not as moral as we like to think we are. Using brain scan research, they show how we are easily manipulated by authorities to lie, hurt and even kill. Ultimately, the more complex the moral dilemma, the longer it takes our brain to react. Thus we are likely to stand by and watch when others commit immoral acts.
In Chapter 7, Newberg describes his brain scan research with a group of Franciscan nuns engaged in prayer, and the authors suggest how spiritual beliefs become neurologically real in the minds of practitioners.
Chapter 8 includes the first brain scan study of Pentecostal practitioners who speak in tongues, and the findings show that this uniquely creative form of prayer is very different from other forms of spiritual practice, and is probably very similar to shamanic trance states, hypnotherapy, and certain altered states of consciousness brought about by drugs. The authors are careful to point out that Pentecostal practices are inherently beneficial and do not represent pathological processes of illness.
In Chapter 9, the authors conduct the first brain scan on an atheist who attempts to pray to God. They found that when a person focuses on opposing beliefs, a neurological dissonance takes place that prejudices the individual to reject them. Atheists are physiologically healthy individuals, even though they are one of the most despised groups in America. This chapter sheds light on why political parties tend to despise one another and goes a long way in explaining why there is so much religious discord in the world.
Finally, in Chapter 10, the authors discuss ways to become ?a better believer? by developing a more cautious, skeptical, yet openminded approach when evaluating information from the media and from science. An overview of 27 forms of cognitive biases are presented, along with a systematic critique of prayer/religion research. They also summarize contemporary research on the placebo effect.
Overall, an astonishing book that was equally fun to read?but then again, that?s what I believe.
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Product Details

Newberg, Andrew B
Free Press
Newberg, Andrew
Waldman, Mark Robert
Mark Robert Wald
Physiological Psychology
Psychology of Religion
Psychology, Religious
Brain -- Religious aspects.
Psychology : General
Publication Date:
September 2006
Grade Level:
9 x 6 in

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Health and Self-Help » Psychology » General
Reference » Science Reference » Philosophy of Science
Religion » Spirituality » General

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