Writer's Block Writer's Block It's In The Neurons

It's In The Neurons

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altI often wonder what makes some people espouse strong beliefs more than others or what it is that makes an individual, a group or a society attached to a particular belief system.  More importantly, why, when faced with a difference of opinion or a different belief system, the reaction is very strong, often emotional and even physical as well as violent. 

For example, some people are actually demanding that the atheist civil servant from West Sumatra should be beheaded for committing blasphemy.  Which is basically saying that they honestly believe that in a society that demands you to conform to an unquestioning belief in a supernatural being, atheism is a real and physical threat to the unity of the society and therefore must be eradicated.

As a matter of fact, we ourselves, often feel a negative reaction when we encounter opinions and views that greatly differ to ours on practically any topic, from religion, politics, to favourite celebrities and football teams;  whether at the dinner table that turns into a shouting match, or in the boardroom during meetings that degenerate into clashing arguments of stubbornly held views.     

Personally it has always been a mystery to me why, for instance, when even though nine out of ten people agree with my views, it is that one person who disagrees with me that I fixate upon and ends up getting on my nerves.  Why is it so important for me and my sense of who I am that others share my particular view point?  What is it that makes me defensive of my beliefs?


The other day, while browsing through the Internet, I found the answer.  It is posted on Youtube under the heading Athene’s Theory of Everything.  I advice you to check it out.  Once you get past the rather strange accent of the narrator, the documentary, with good visuals and music, purports to relate through recent scientific breakthroughs in neuroscience, everything from life, death and the origin of the universe.  Including my question, why we don’t like it when other people have a different opinion from us.

I learn that the human brain is a network of a hundred billion neurons, and depending on what get stimulated or ignored, neurons can get stronger or weaker.  A talent for example, can be trained by continually stimulating the relevant neurons, say, by continuous practice.  Rationality and emotional resilience too are neural connections that can be strengthened. 

This is where how we think and how we deal with our thoughts come into play.

The reason why we get attached to our views and opinions is because ‘specific neurons and neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine trigger a defensive state when we feel our thoughts have to be protected from the influence of others.  If we are then confronted with differences in opinion, the chemicals that are released in the brain are the same ones that try to ensure our survival in dangerous situations.’

So that’s why some fundamentalists who are so attached to their belief system tend to react violently.  It’s in the neurons.  And if this type of response sounds primitive, it is, because it uses the primitive part of our brain.  ‘In this defensive state, the more primitive part of the brain interferes with rational thinking and the limbic system can knock out most of our working memory, physically causing narrow-mindedness.’

I suppose this is why, even though I know rationally that my view or idea is actually wrong, I still get annoyed and defensive and would happily slap my critic if I could get away with it.  I cannot at this moment rationally process the truth and beauty of that other idea.  My brain tells me I’m under attack!

But what happens when people agree with our opinions and appreciate how brilliant our ideas are?  These ‘defense chemicals decrease in the brain and dopamine neurotransmission activates the reward neurons, making us feel empowered and increasing our self-esteem...’

Isn’t that fascinating?  That we are actually mere expressions of these billions of neurons firing off different things at the same time?  Which leads us to the question of who is this ‘I’, this identity that we form about ourselves and how others see us?  Actually we are a lot of things at the same time, depending which of our ‘mirror neurons’ are at play.  These are the neurons leading to emphatic emotions.  They connect us through our imagination, to other people, allowing us to feel what others feel.  Giving us a sense of both identity and a part of society. 

‘We are in constant duality between how we see ourselves and how others see us.‘   ‘Our beliefs have a profound impact on our body chemistry.  Self-esteem or self-belief is closely linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Lack of it causes depression, self destructive behaviour and suicide.‘   This is where the need for society and social validation comes in.

When we get social validation, it actually increases the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, allowing us to become more self-aware; so we don’t act in blind, impulsive and random manner that are both frustrating and negative.  Hence, self-awareness is the key to controlling which neurons in our brain that we need to release and the thoughts we want to have. 

Why? Because ‘self-observing profoundly changes the way our brain works.  It activates the self-regulating neo-cortical regions, which gives us an incredible amount of control over our feelings.‘  So there you go.

By the way, I also read somewhere that eating dark chocolate can actually increase the level of serotonin in the brain.  Now I know the recipe for peace of mind.  Chocolate and staying well away from critics. 

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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