The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

  The Believing Brain is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.  The science behind just what makes us believe in the supernatural, the odd, the elusive, is a fascinating read that makes sense to someone who struggled his entire life with the amazing pull of the supernatural.

Beliefs themselves are not borne of hard, logical, empirical data:

“Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time…
“The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. We can’t help it. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality.”

But why we are be built this way?  It’s an evolutionary survival trait:

“In other words, we tend to find meaningful patterns whether they are there or not, and there is a perfectly good reason to do so. In this sense, patternicities such as superstition and magical thinking are not so much errors in cognition as they are natural processes of a learning brain. We can no more eliminate superstitious learning than we can eliminate all learning. Although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the patternicity phenomenon endured the winnowing process of natural selection. Because we must make associations in order to survive and reproduce, natural selection favored all association-making strategies, even those that resulted in false positives. With this evolutionary perspective we can now understand that people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.”

How hard is it to control the body?  The sense of free will itself is very likely an illusion:

“Add to this processing time the other two-tenths of a second to act on the choice, and it means that a full half second passes between our brain’s intention to do something and our awareness of the actual act of doing it. The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act.”

Even if you want to change, there are other factors that discourage change:

“On top of this, our brains place a judgment value upon beliefs. There are good evolutionary reasons for why we form beliefs and judge them as good or bad that I will discuss in the chapter on political beliefs, but suffice it to say here that our evolved tribal tendencies lead us to form coalitions with fellow like-minded members of our group and to demonize others who hold differing beliefs. Thus, when we hear about the beliefs of others that differ from our own, we are naturally inclined to dismiss or dismantle their beliefs as nonsense, evil, or both. This propensity makes it even more difficult to change our minds in the teeth of new evidence…
“Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist, which is affected in part by education but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social change.”

Even if you have a science degree:

“The problem we face is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training. Any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.”

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do with my own belief system.  And I can vouch for the following:

“Rarer still, there are those who, upon carefully weighing the evidence for and against a position they already hold, or one they have yet to form a belief about, compute the odds and make a steely-eyed emotionless decision and never look back. Such belief reversals are so rare in religion and politics as to generate headlines if it is someone prominent, such as a cleric who changes religions or renounces his or her faith, or a politician who changes parties or goes independent. It happens, but it is as rare as a black swan.”

In short, beliefs are created and then rationalized, often as an evolutionary survival mechanism, but hardly ever with the conscious mind.  Quitting those instincts has societal as well as mental hurdles, and even when you’re convinced you are following the logical path, it’s hard to ignore your ancestor’s genetic coding.  Read and enjoy.

No comments: