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A recent study conducted by scientists at Oxford University found that an individual’s ‘belief in science’ increases in the face of stress or anxiety.

The researchers developed a scale measuring a ‘belief in science’ consisting of ten statements addressing the power of science to provide knowledge and explain reality. Participants – all of whom identified as non-religious – would then be asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with each statement.

In the first experiment, 100 participants who were rowers were split into two groups. One group would be competing in a regatta, while the other group would be having a regular training session. Researchers administered the ‘belief in science’ scale to both groups, and those who were competing (and operating at a higher stress level) scored a much higher belief in science than the training group.

During a second experiment, a different set of 60 participants were split into two groups. One group was asked to write about the feelings evoked by thoughts of their own death, while the other group was asked to write about dental pain. The participants who wrote about their own deaths scored higher in the ‘belief in science’ scale than the other group.

Researchers reported that findings were consistent with the idea that a belief in science helps non-religious people cope with stress and threatening situations; much as religion does for religious believers.

This study instigates much thought about the nature of belief. As the researchers point out, the study only looks at how stressful situations increase belief. More research is needed to explore how (and if) belief in science might work the other way around, as a way of decreasing stress levels.

I’d like to see future research head in this direction because it seems that’s one of the main things we can do with beliefs – enlist them as a way to provide meaning and order, to allay fears about death and the unknown, and to self-regulate in times of duress. Historically, this role has been filled by faith and belief in religious traditions, but considering the times we live in now, why wouldn’t people use science in this way?

In the therapy room I continually work with the dynamic powers of belief, spending a lot of time helping clients identify, evaluate, and change beliefs about themselves and the world they live in. The thinking goes, when you change your beliefs, you change your life. Through my client work I have come to understand beliefs as the building blocks of personal reality, the filter and the framework through which we experience life. In my experience, most people come to counselling and psychotherapy because they’re unhappy with their current reality, so identifying and adjusting beliefs becomes part of the work. I’ve learned two main lessons from this: it matters what we believe, and it matters how we believe.

Beliefs may also be pictured as conduits which allow different variations of energy to flow into one’s life. As such, they may harness life affirming energy just as well as destructive energy. Think of the difference in presence between someone who believes they are worthy of love and respect and someone who believes they are unworthy of it. This is why it matters what you believe; the quality of your beliefs has a major influence on your life.

It also matters how you believe. I think this means relationship. What is your relationship to your beliefs? Are you fervent or adaptable with them? How attached are you? Are these beliefs even yours?

In common parlance we say that we ‘hold’ beliefs. I like this expression because there is an implied sense of space and distance in the statement. It’s easy to imagine yourself holding a belief in the palm of your hand. The question then becomes, how closely and how tightly are you holding onto it? Hold a belief too closely and it’s hard to gain clarity and perspective. The inner vision can turn myopic, focused on only one way. It’s easy to snuff out the ability to question and explore, to evolve one’s sense of reality and life experiences. Anyone who is a fundamentalist suffers from holding beliefs too closely.

A neuroscience study explored this concept within the realm of politics. It looked at the differences in blood flow and activity in the brain between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. Those who scored higher in liberalism were found to have higher activity in their anterior cingulate, the part of the brain that helps mediate when things are in conflict with the way you believe. Researchers interpreted the results by concluding that people who scored higher on liberalism were better able to alter their habitual response patterns, meaning they were more open to change, more open to other ideas, and more open to conflict than people who scored lower on liberalism.

What’s in a name, right? According to the study it seems the inclusive, open nature of liberal political views mirror an internal ability to be open to one’s own beliefs without veering into rigidity.

I’m not taking sides though. In general, I find it’s best to approach belief with a healthy dose of reality relativity. Beliefs help define a person’s reality and that person’s sense of truth. It may not be my truth, or anyone else’s for that matter, but it is theirs. That’s where the relativity comes in – when I consider someone’s beliefs as their framework for reality, I find it’s a lot easier to be accepting and respectful. After all, holding a belief in something or someone doesn’t mean that it’s exclusive proof of truth; it’s simply an attachment we’ve formed to something or someone else.

Further Reading

Original press release from Oxford University.




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