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    Beliefs, non-ordinary experiences, and the functioning of the human mind

    September, 29th 2023

    Everton Maraldi is a psychologist, researcher at the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) and professor of the Science of Religion Graduate Program at PUC-SP. He is coordinator of the Center for Psychological Studies of Religion and the Research Group on Religious Experience and Altered States of Consciousness, both at PUC-SP. He studies, among other topics, spirituality, religion and health, social psychology of religion, dissociation and dissociative disorders, history of psychological and psychiatric research on religiosity.

    In this interview, Everton Maraldi talks about the place of beliefs in society and how they impact decision-making processes in different areas of human life, including health. He explains what non-ordinary experiences are and how a better understanding of them can help bring about a new perception of religiousness and the personality of Brazilians. Everton also presents the pioneering research project on Neuroscience and Psychology of Beliefs, developed at IDOR, which studies the impact of beliefs and spirituality on the brain and neurophysiological processes and psychology.

    Pioneer Science: What is the neuroscience and psychology of beliefs?

    Everton: First, it is important to understand the place of beliefs in society. Beliefs impact different dimensions of human life: for example, politics, the economy, and health, which is our focus. Many of the decisions people make, for example regarding who they will vote for or where they will invest depend on expectations and beliefs.

    A fundamental area in the study of beliefs is certainly religiousness/spirituality. There was a period when studying spirituality and religiousness was viewed negatively. There was resistance within the academic environment to this topic, largely due to a strong process of secularization, especially in Europe and in the United States. So, the topic became a taboo or came to be interpreted as negative in relation to health. A central figure of this mentality was Freud, who related religiosity to obsessive neurosis: he associated religious rituals with the rituals of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder to deal with anxiety and their anguish.

    From the second half of the 20th century, this vision began to change due to a series of social transformations: the opening to practices such as meditation; the interest in the experiences of psychedelics; and an interest in Western and Eastern mysticism. Studies have also begun to emerge showing the psychological and physiological effects of spiritual practices.

    All this helped to establish and later institutionalize an entire area of research, which is spirituality and health, which seeks to understand the impact of religious and spiritual practices, beliefs, and experiences on both physical and mental health.

    And what is the potential impact of these studies in relation to the work within the health field, with medical and psychological care?

    The placebo effect, for example, is already commonly studied in various experiments within medicine. When a person takes medication, part of the effect is psychological – it is not necessarily a result of the active ingredient in the medication. It’s an example of how beliefs have a huge impact on health.

    In the best studies, with the best quality in terms of methodological care, it was found that spirituality has a significant impact on health, both physical and mental. Some studies show, for example, that having a religiosity or spirituality and exercising this can be as impactful as quitting smoking, engaging in regular physical exercise or having healthy eating habits. In mental health, data show the impact of spirituality on subjective well-being, for example, in coping with grief. There are also studies that indicate that there would be no relationship with health or evidence showing negative effects. And when that impact is negative, there’s the challenge of understanding how to address that in a clinical context.

    How is the field of neuroscience and belief psychology advancing? What is the Brazilian scenario?

    Brazil has enormous potential for the area of neuroscience and psychology of beliefs, due to our cultural context, often of religious hybridity. Some Brazilian researchers have stood out in the international area, especially in the field of spirituality. The John Templeton Foundation is very interested in the development of this research in Brazil and has been looking for researchers and groups that can perform studies. And this scenario that IDOR is bringing, in the sense of thinking not only about the impact on health but, on a broader perspective, from the point of view of brain and neurophysiological processes, and of looking at psychology in a broader way, is a pioneering effort.

    How can science help to understand beliefs and their psychological and neural basis?

    The way we see the world is not simply a mirror of reality. Our understanding of things always passes through a filter that is determined by mental schemes that include belief systems. And the way our mind understands and explains events and assigns causality – for example, why something happens a certain way, whether it goes right or wrong – will influence our decisions. If a person understands that an event is caused by the action of a demon, a spirit or fate, this will affect the behavior differently than if the person understands that it is an organic problem, or an effect related to attitudes.

    So, studying how beliefs are structured is essential for us to help people understand themselves, in a process of self-knowledge.

    Some psychological and neurophysiological theories talk about how people try to understand the succession of events in life and predict what will happen based on this belief system. If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, the organism is always trying to find situations that are more adaptive, that guarantee survival. Our brain is doing this all the time and understanding how, what are the mechanisms and whether or not it is possible to change them, when they act in a dysfunctional way, is very important not only scientifically, but also from a practical point of view.

    What are non-ordinary experiences and how might they (or might they not) be related to mental health?

    It is very common for people to report, in the religious context, spiritual experiences, for example, seeing a deceased person or having a vision of a saint. Experiences of this kind are at the base of different spiritual traditions. Even outside the religious context, many people report experiences in which they see themselves outside the body, sometimes in situations of proximity to death or that, in the process of mourning, they had visions of deceased people. Others report having had some premonition about things that were going to happen. As a psychologist, we always ask ourselves to what extent this experience is a sign of a mental disorder – because, in the literature, in many cases of psychotic disorder, the content of certain hallucinations or delusions is religious or involves elements of belief in paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and premonition.

    So, the question is, when can I tell the difference between a healthy religious or spiritual experience and a pathological one?

    Today, we know that certain hallucinatory experiences are recurrent in the population. And these experiences are called non-ordinary, anomalous, or exceptional, because they are reported by non-religious people as well. These are more neutral terms with regard to the cause or origin of the experience, but they are still inappropriate because these experiences are far from unusual or exceptional.

    The prevalence of these experiences in the general population is much higher than the prevalence of many mental disorders. This suggests that they are not, in themselves, pathological. But when there is a boundary that is as difficult to define, how do I make this assessment? There is a whole literature discussing diagnostic criteria, how to differentiate and help a person when they have a more pathological experience, in terms of psychotherapy and medical care. But existing criteria – such as absence of distress or social maladjustment – are most useful when dealing with extreme cases or examples. It is still necessary to advance in the understanding of other factors that shed light on the characterization of these different experiences.

    What is the research on non-ordinary experiences performed in Brazil, together with Professor Ann Taves, from the University of Santa Barbara, in California?

    Professor Ann Taves has been developing, for some years, a new theoretical framework about these experiences, because there is a discussion in the literature between experience and belief. One thing is the experience that the person has, and another is the interpretation that the person gives, which can be religious, neuropsychological, or medical. So, what she asked herself is: how to differentiate one thing from the other? Is there a base experience, phenomenologically speaking, that can be separated from the attributions that people make? And once you’ve done that, what is the prevalence of these experiences in the population, regardless of how people interpret, make sense of, or explain them? In turn, what role do beliefs and attributions play in the psychosocial and health implications of non-ordinary experiences?

    She then began developing an inventory of non-ordinary experiences, which builds on and at the same time extends the proposals of several existing questionnaires. This study was initially done in the United States, had a second arm in India and a first attempt was made in Brazil, which did not go very far. We are now working on this second project, in collaboration with IDOR colleagues and with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. A broader project was conceived, in the sense of not only validating the questionnaire in Brazil, but also thinking about the implications of these experiences for mental health and the Brazilian cultural context.

    In what ways can this research bring a new perception about the religiosity and personality of Brazilians?

    From what we already know, from other studies with smaller samples, the prevalence of these experiences in Brazil tends to be much higher than in other countries. So, there is a great cultural receptivity to these themes, even by people who do not have a defined religious practice. Interest in these subjects is in journalistic articles, in soap operas and in culture in general. Therefore, there is an openness, and this is very interesting, because when you compare it to countries like the United Kingdom, where religions have a smaller impact on society, there may be a tendency to look at these experiences as more morbid or eccentric.

    In Brazil, which has a very receptive context, how does this happen? We do not have this data, because most research in the area has been conducted in European countries or in the United States. So, it’s important to do this research and better understand how these cultural differences can impact our society.

    See also the infographic “How history made room for neuroscience and the psychology of beliefs“, in which we show a timeline with some of the main milestones that helped establish research in the area.


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