Why believing is seeing; and why thats bad for religion.

A common thing said in churches and other houses of worship are ‘you just need to believe it enough and you will see it happen’. This, or variations of it, are one of the most common things I heard while I practised Christianity. Urging people to further ingrain and indoctrinate fundamentalist beliefs into their psyche. Many apologists also use a similar line suggesting that you don’t have religious experiences because you simply lack faith.

Interestingly, neuroscience and psychology actually agree with the ‘believing is seeing’ line, but the evidence that supports it actually discredits religious apologists claims about it. To understand why, you will need a quick primer on the science of sensation and perception, strap in though, this might mess with your head a little. To keep this short we will focus mostly on vision, but the same principals apply to all senses except smell due to a difference in its ‘wiring’.

In psychology, there is a clear distinction between sensing and perceiving. Sensing is the method in which neural receptors are stimulated and that stimulation is transmitted to the brain. Perceiving, on the other hand, is the process in which sensory information is converted into the simplest congruent reality it can be, and how that is passed to consciousness as what we experience.

Contrary to popular belief, your eyes do not send an image back to your brain. Instead, your brain receives approximately 1 million signals from each eye, each one simply indicating stimulated or not stimulated. The physiology behind this is actually a little complex and won’t be covered here but there are many resources available about it online. This passes through the thalamus, the relay centre of the brain, and into the visual cortex for processing.

The process of decoding this information is very complex and varies from person to person. It is in this process that colours are created based on stimulation of the stimulation of the 3 different cones in each eye. lines, curves, etc are all identified by processing this immense amount of yes or no signals from the eyes.

Once shapes and colours are identified or created, the brain calls on memories and schemas from the hippocampus. This is where things get interesting because this is where your beliefs and experiences start to shape your perception. Your brain uses these memories and existing concepts of reality (schemas) as building blocks for the reality it will eventually put forward.

You perceive a cat because the pattern of stimulation on your retina matches the schema associated with a cat. This process is used to identify everything you see, hear, touch and taste. Where the trickery comes in is when your sensory information doesn’t quite match what your brain believes is, or should be, happening. In this instance, your brain actually makes changes and manipulates the reality to fit within how it believes it should be.

There are many examples of this in everyday life, I will present a few here.

One very primal and culturally independent example is that we do not perceive the blind spots in our vision. Each eye has a significant blind spot where the optical nerve attaches at the rear of the retina. Our brains fill that blind spot with visual information it thinks should be there. To show this to be true is actually fairly simple.

Close one eye and hold one finger directly in front of you with your arm fully extended. Look directly at the fingernail on said finger. without moving your eyes, move the finger slowly to the right if using your right eye and to the left, if using your left eye. When it gets to an angle of about 15 degrees to your gaze, the tip of your finger will disappear. This clearly demonstrates how our brain fills in the blanks and modifies reality to make it congruent.

Another common example is watching tv or a movie. When a person on the screen speaks we perceive the speech as coming from their mouth. In reality, the sound is coming from the speakers on the sides of the screen, or possibly elsewhere in the room. If you close your eyes you can hear the sound coming from the speakers, but as soon as you see someone speaking the sound appears to come from their mouth. This happens because our brains trust our eyes more than it trusts our ears, our eyes are saying their mouth is moving, and that is where the sound should be coming from. So our perceptual system makes an adjustment to the information it is receiving so that it aligns with how it thinks it should be.

A final example of this is that we perceive an object even when a large portion of it is obscured. If you go to dinner with a friend and they sit on the other side of the table, you still perceive a person, even though you cannot see a large portion of their body (assuming it’s not a glass table).  This shows that our brain fills in blanks and perceives things how it should be. We cannot see all the features of the person to match with the schema, but our brain makes an assumption and identifies it as a person even though it has limited sensory information to do so with.

The resulting implication of all of this is that believing is seeing. Our brains alter sensory information to make it fit with how we believe reality should be, even if those beliefs are false. Sure you may have seen a demon leave someone’s body, but that doesn’t mean it actually happened, your brain added that information in because that’s what it thought should have been happening.

In conclusion, just because you definitely perceived something doesnt mean it happened or existed. This is one of the major reasons that anecdotes are not accepted as evidence, they rely too heavily on the processing and manipulation of information by the perceptual system.

So if you believe enough that you will see something happen, you possibly will see it, but that doesn’t mean it actually happened, it was likely just your brain adding it into your reality to line your sense up with your beliefs.

Thanks for reading, if you have any suggestions for a post or any apologists arguments you would like me to look into please email me at Ross@BecomingGodless.com

2 thoughts on “Why believing is seeing; and why thats bad for religion.

  1. KIA

    This is a fascinating post. I just tried the eye thing and it worked. My brain ‘filled in’ the off white background of the wall above my couch, and then filled in the brown fake suede of my pillows on the couch when I tried it lower. Amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kia,

      One of the goals I had for this blog was to take science, make it easy to understand and find ways to show it in everyday life. Glad you enjoyed the post.


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