Beliefs and Belief Systems

In addition to values and criteria, one of the most fundamental ways that we frame our experience and give it meaning is through our beliefs. Beliefs are another one of the key components of our 'deep structure'. They shape and create the 'surface structures' of our thoughts, words and actions in many ways. Beliefs determine how events are given meaning, and are at the core of motivation and culture. Our beliefs and values provide the reinforcement (motivation and permission) that supports or inhibits particular capabilities and behaviors. Beliefs and values relate to the question, "Why?"

Beliefs are essentially judgments and evaluations about ourselves, others and the world around us. In NLP, beliefs are considered to be closely held generalizations about 1) causation, 2) meaning and 3) boundaries in: (a) the world around us, (b) our behavior, (c) our capabilities and (d) our identities. The statements, "The shifting of continental plates causes earthquakes," and "God's wrath causes earthquakes," for instance, would reflect different beliefs about cause in the world around us. Statements such as: "Pollen causes allergies," "It is unethical to conceal information," "It is not possible for a human to run a mile in less than four minutes," "I will never be successful because I am a slow learner," and "Behind every behavior is a positive intention," all represent beliefs of one form or another.

Beliefs function at a different level than behavior and perception and influence our experience and interpretation of reality by connecting our experiences to our criteria or value systems. To gain practical meaning, for example, values must be connected to experiences through beliefs. Beliefs connect values to the environment, behaviors, thoughts and representations, or to other beliefs and values. Beliefs define the relationship between values and their causes, 'criterial equivalences', and consequences (this will be covered in more depth in Chapter 6). A typical belief statement links a particular value to some other part of our experience. The belief statement, "Success requires hard work," for instance, links the value "success" to a class of activity ("hard work"). The statement, "Success is mainly a matter of luck," connects the same value to a different class of activity ("luck"). Depending upon which belief a person had, he or she would most likely adopt a different approach to attempting to reach success. Furthermore, the way in which a situation, activity, or idea fits (or does not fit) with the beliefs and value systems of an individual or group will determine how it will be received and incorporated.

Neurologically, beliefs are associated with the limbic system and hypothalamus in the midbrain. The limbic system has been linked to both emotion and long term memory. While the limbic system is a more "primitive" structure than the cortex of the brain in many ways, it serves to integrate information from the cortex and to regulate the autonomic nervous system (which controls basic body functions such as heart rate, body temperature, pupil dilation, etc.). Because they are produced by deeper structures of the brain, beliefs produce changes in the fundamental physiological functions in the body and are responsible for many of our unconscious responses. In fact, one of the ways that we know that we really believe something is because it triggers physiological reactions; it makes our "heart pound," our "blood boil," or our "skin tingle" (all effects that we cannot typically produce consciously). This is how a polygraph device is able to detect whether or not a person is "lying." People show a different physical reaction when they believe what they are saying than when they are "just saying" it as a behavior (like an actor might recite a line), or when they are being untruthful or incongruent.

It is the intimate connection between beliefs and deeper physiological functions that also creates the possibility for them to have such a powerful influence in the area of health and healing (as in the case of the placebo effect). Beliefs tend to have a self-organizing or "self-fulfilling" effect on our behavior at many levels, focusing attention in one area and filtering it out of others. A person who deeply believes he or she has an incurable illness will begin to organize his or her life and actions around that belief, making many subtle and often unconscious decisions which reflect that belief. A person who deeply believes that his or her illness will be cured will make quite different decisions. And because expectations generated by our beliefs effect our deeper neurology, they can also produce dramatic physiological effects. This is illustrated by the example of the woman who adopted a baby, and because she believed that "mothers" were supposed to provide milk for their babies, actually began to lactate and produced enough milk to breast feed her adopted child!

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