Representation, belief and action in biology and human development

Jonathan Hill

Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Reading

One of the core defining features of living organisms is an ability to act appropriately to the demands of the situation, in a timely manner, and effectively. Survival depends on it. Under this description, bacteria act, bees act, babies act, and adult humans act, but only humans from middle childhood onwards employ beliefs as a basis for action. The common thread across all these organisms, and also systems within organisms, is that action is based on information about the environment that is relevant to the organism or system. So bees fly to nectar in the direction indicated in the straight run through the figure of 8 waggle dance. The case of bees also illustrates vividly the general point that information processing requires rules for the representation of key features of the environment; for social processes to occur they have to be used in the same way by the social participants. In humans, language illustrates the same point, and all in the absence of something we want to call belief. So beliefs are not necessary for actions, and perhaps are involved in only a minority, but can also be powerful determinants of action. I will discuss where beliefs fit within this wider framework of representation, rule following and action, the functions they may perform, and the risks they may create for psychopathology. I will also briefly describe how beliefs can be considered alongside other processes in family based interventions for child and adolescent mental health problems.