So what exactly is a belief system?
At the most basic level, a belief system is a collection of memories. From the very beginning of life information is taken in and stored in the brain as “memory.” Memory can be thought of as “thinking” that has been “permanently encoded” in the brain and can be retrieved in the process of “remembering.” Memory is the most elemental building block of human learning. Without the ability to store and retrieve information, learning simply wouldn’t happen.
From birth, sensory input (sights, sounds, smells, feelings, tastes) is recorded and used by human beings to begin to make sense of our world. Sensations, such as hunger, are experienced, crying ensues, and (usually) feeding takes place. A rudimentary thought is registered: “Crying results in feeding.” And so it begins. As the process repeats itself, the belief is beginning to form that: “Crying is an effective way to get one’s needs met.”
Nearly every waking moment, information is streaming into the human brain. The brain is busy organizing and categorizing this information, constantly scanning the ever-growing collection of information to guide subsequent thinking, decision-making and behavior. “What did I do the last time this thought registered?” “What should I do next?” This “systematic” way of developing a method for making sense of our world is known as a belief system.
Think of a belief system as a “filter” through which incoming information is filtered. Much like a red filter in a camera lens would alter all objects being photographed to come out with a red hue. Our belief systems alter information to fit the “hue” of what we have come to know as the absolute truth. Filters can be very useful - but what if there is a subtle flaw in the filter. This inherent flaw will be imbued on all information passed through the filter.
Most researchers agree that by age six, a person’s belief system is fairly well formed. By age six, youngsters have a pretty solid idea of what they believe to be right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and bad. Amazingly, these beliefs, formed so early, are not likely to change much throughout life – unless, of course, problems arise. Some believe that this process is actually happening at a much earlier age. Take, for instance, a baby who is on formula and is not sleeping through the night. An unwitting set of young parents follows the advice of a friend who suggests that cereal might help the baby sleep through the night. Presto – it works like a charm. What the parents may not realize, however, is that they have slightly over-fed the baby. A slightly over-inflated feeling of “fullness” is now repeatedly induced in this young one. A seemingly innocuous belief is being formed: “I am done eating when I feel this familiar sense of ‘fullness’ in my stomach.”
This belief about “fullness” is likely to remain the gauge for years, possibly for life. A seemingly insignificant overage, embedded as the “norm” so early in life, may set this child on a trajectory that could easily cause a significant weight problem later in life.
Does this seem like a stretch to you? Before making a judgment, consider the math. By the time a person reaches the age of 20, he or she will have eaten nearly 30,000 times (based on an average of 4 times per day - 3 meals and a snack). A mere 5 calorie overage per meal/snack adds up to 150,000 calories of overage. Translated into body fat, that amounts to nearly 43 pounds. Not so “insignificant” as one might think. A simple 5 calorie “error” in one’s belief about “when to stop eating” can have a profound impact.
Is it unreasonable to think that a human being will repeatedly make the same minute mistake based on a tiny error in belief? Actually, it is quite unreasonable to think anything else. We really are proverbial “creatures” of habit. Once we “believe” something is the way it should be, we operate religiously, guided by this principle.
Okay, you’re wondering, so what is the point?
Ultimately our behaviors are the result of core beliefs we hold. Some aspects of less than optimal health, such as being over-weight, are driven, in many cases, by behaviors that are supported by less than optimal core beliefs.
Allow me to share another example. “I am feeling hungry, therefore I must eat.” Many people believe that the feeling of hunger “must” be responded to with the delivery of food as soon as possible. This seems like a logical belief, but is it helpful if it isn’t time to eat? Is it helpful to believe this if I am trying to lose weight? What if I were to believe instead: “Hunger is merely a signal that my stomach is empty, not that it is now time to eat.” Or how about: “Hunger is a signal that my body is now burning fat, the very thing that I am trying to make it do. Hunger, therefore, is a good thing.” It should be quite apparent that these alternative beliefs about what hunger really means would significantly impact what the ‘keeper’ of the belief might choose to do when feeling hungry.
Fortunately, human beings can make changes to belief systems, but it’s not as easy as simply swapping out a memory card, nor is it a simple matter of identifying the unwanted belief and believing something different. Recall that belief systems are actually collections of memory; thoughts imbedded and “frozen” in the recesses of our brains. Researchers suggest that every single thought registers a memory that is pretty much there for life, barring injury or damage to brain tissue. Evidence to support such is found in documented cases of brain surgeons probing portions of the brains of patients who are thereby stimulated to recall long “forgotten” events, such as childhood birthday parties, in vivid detail.
By early adulthood, the sheer volume of memory that likely supports a given belief can be quite sizeable. By contrast, the thoughts that support any new “alternative” belief are miniscule. The new, alternative belief literally needs to be built in the same fashion as the old one – one thought at a time. As new thoughts are registered and embedded in memory, the fledgling alternative belief begins to grow and take root. Given enough time, patience and persistence, eventually the new belief garners enough size and momentum to rival the old. Fortunately, we can accelerate the process by consciously thinking the new thought repeatedly.
This goes a long way to explain why human beings often find themselves doing the same “old” thing, even though they “know better.” We try like crazy to “do something different”, largely unaware that our powerful belief systems are really running the show. No wonder we fail. It’s like trying to use a band-aid to cure cancer. Our feeble attempts at changing behavior are just that – feeble. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Knowing and doing, however, are two very different animals. As we continue to move through this series of articles, we will carefully explore the process of getting from knowing to doing and ultimately the maintenance and permanence of optimal behavior and optimal health.