As a neurosurgeon who treats patients with malignant brain tumors, there are many  times when I have to give people very, very bad news. I have told a wide variety of men and women that they have a diagnosis that is going to take their life. Those are moments I don’t look forward to. Regardless of race, wealth, and education, the patient and their family are often in shock after the news. What they do after that, however, varies quite a bit. On one end of the spectrum, some seem to manage with a fortitude and grace that is truly inspiring. Others can become mired in a depression that paralyzes their ability to recover. 

An interesting thread that seems to unify those patients and their families that seem to rise above their diagnosis is having a strong religious faith, or a sense of higher purpose. I am often struck by how my more purpose-oriented patients can find a higher meaning in their suffering, and as a result seem happier and more capable in dealing with their disease. When confronted by the very terrible question of “why,” they have a psychological architecture that accommodates some of life’s unfair mysteries.

Setting aside the metaphysics for a moment, I don’t want to make any arguments about the presence or absence of God. Nor do I want to make any judgments about people who do or don’t believe in a higher being. Rather, I think the interesting thing about faith and how it helps a patient deal with disease is that it tells us something fundamental about how humans are put together. 

The basic tenants of evolution are that there is a selective pressure for traits within a species that favors its ability to survive. So thinking about various animals and plants that have a bunch of genetic variability within the group (some are bigger, some are smaller, some are this color or that color, etc). In any case, as the environment changes some aspect to that creature favors it surviving and making it more likely to breed and thus increasing the presence of that trait in the population. In a simple example, it’s the reason that you’re more likely to see moths that are brown and black, because the white ones all gotten eaten in the past.  But survival traits can go far beyond color and size. If you irradiate a spider (and injury the DNA in its sperm and eggs), its offspring will have distorted spider webs. The point here is that very complex behaviors can be genetically encoded. 

Despite the modern perception of free will, humans are not immune from genetically dictated behaviors. Study upon study has shown the influence of one’s genes on their proclivity for depression and personality disorders.  So that begs the question, how high up the cognitive food chain of thoughts and ideas do our genes go?

Joseph Campbell spent his life studying religions throughout the world. He clearly documents through his multicultural studies that religion (i.e. some belief in a higher divine reality) is present throughout every nook and cranny of human existence. Even more interesting is that not only is faith intrinsic to a social culture, but quite often the themes of religions are also strikingly similar. 

So why? Why do humans believe in things and why do they believe in similar things. Just like certain configurations of a spider webs give that arachnid a better chance of passing on its genes, so too do certain cognitive predispositions enhance (on average) the human species’ ability to survive their environment. I think even the most strident atheist-evolutionist and hardcore evangelical fundamentalist can probably agree that human society has done a lot of good for the propagation of the human species. Through the formation of social groups we pool resources (e.g. grain silos, oil reserves, and water towers), subspecialize work duties (e.g. farmers, miners, doctors, etc.), and create infrastructure (planes, trains, and highways). Thus, no one person has to do it all to survive. 

That said, we all know that the group isn’t always kind to the individual and many times a society can be quite bad for a human’s health (e.g. war).  Also, keep in mind that evolution is for survival of the species. Thinking back to Homo Erectus back several million years ago, what compelled them to start working together? They realized they could get more food and have more kids by acting as a group.  Again there may have been the “go-it-alone Erectus.” But he, like a white moth, didn’t do very well. So for the species to really flourish required it to become hyper-specialized. Different people had to do different things. Some had to get more and some had to get less. There needed to be hierarchy. If we assume that our selfish genes are only looking out for number one, that is never is going to happen and also the species will suffer as a result.  Enter the survival need for religion, or believing in something beyond one’s self. Something bigger allows an individual to sacrifice—to give up something for the whole.  As a result, the group does better and the human species as a whole has a better survival advantage. 

The cognitive convention also provides the Homo Sapiens some additional survival benefits. As our frontal lobes increased in size and we start looking to understand the workings of our environment and ourselves, humans became confronted with mysteries they couldn’t explain (droughts, famine, and the whole cadre of human suffering). Early on there was plenty of unexplainable stuff.  Again, those who could create a system that put these things into a framework that enable them to operate in their lives in a more ordered and social manner, likely enabled them to survive and have offspring. Or at the very least be more compliant with a social order (think of the pharaohs and all the slaves), which served the group faring well where many individuals maybe did not. Either way, having a predisposition in believing in a higher reality in the face of suffering made the human species collectively more resilient

So just as we are hardwired for drives for self-preservation and propagation (hunger, thirst, and sex drive), humans have a fundamental drive to believe in something bigger, a need for meaning.  And just as we try to satisfy those needs, we need to be careful not to over- or under-do it.  If we eat too much we get fat and unhealthy, and if we eat too little we starve and die. Similarly, “over-believing”—or trying to believe to the exclusion of everything else—leads to bizarre behaviors like conspiracy theorists, and  “the world was made in seven days” types who are protesting the teaching of evolution of in our schools—essentially belief to the exclusion of knowledge. If we believe too little, we get the existentialist who likes to say “God is dead” but falls apart when they are dying or under stress. So to quote another famous religious figure—“the path to freedom from suffering is one between the extremes of austerities and sensual indulgence,” namely, the “Middle Way.”

 Copyright 2013 from Brains and Machines

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