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Science & Belief: Why We Believe in Gods, Ghosts, UFOs, Conspiracies, and Everything Else

I'm Nevets: Nerd, cinephile, TV-junkie, bookworm, gamer, and slacker extraordinaire.

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Are You a Believer?

Regardless of how rational and pragmatic you may think you are—or how immune to silly superstitions and wild ideas you might believe yourself to be—the truth is that none of us are Star Trek Vulcans. We're each just as susceptible to illogical thoughts and strange beliefs as the next guy. In fact, we're sorta hardwired that way, so don't feel bad.

Our ability to see patterns, connect dots, and believe things for which there is no evidence is actually one of the many things that makes us extraordinary. It's led to amazing discoveries in science, beautiful works of art, and even resulted in the very survival of our species.

Nevertheless, everything has a downside. For every Einstein or Darwin who recognizes patterns in nature that turn out to be real, there are always millions on the other side of the spectrum who imagine patterns that turn out to be not-so-real. Alas, while the scientific method is a great way to avoid fooling ourselves, we unfortunately don't apply that type of critical thinking to all things. It takes a special effort not to be duped, and sooner or later a false belief will slip through the cracks of our minds. But that's okay. Einstein and Darwin were wrong sometimes too, you know? We're all only human. And beliefs, whether wrong or right, are a major part of our humanity. But perhaps if we know why we fool ourselves, we'll then be better equipped not to be fooled again. That's our goal today.

Using several books and studies related to the psychology of beliefs and the evolution and study of the brain (sources cited within the article), I've compiled a list of some of the biggest reasons we believe in so many unbelievable things. From extraterrestrial visitations to our chosen political parties (including gods, ghosts, conspiracy theories, the afterlife, and an assortment of fears, hopes, and superstitions), these are some of the primary reasons beliefs are ingrained in our everyday lives and why they persist even when they're proven wrong.

Table of Contents

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14. We Evolved to Find Patterns in Everything

How We Evolved to Believe Wacky and Not-So-Wacky Things

Have you ever looked up at the sky and saw a familiar shape in the clouds? Sure you have. We all have. This is an example of how our brains find and interpret patterns, associating them with images and ideas that we already have in our minds. If you were to believe that this familiar pattern in the clouds wasn't merely happenstance but actually meant something (much like our ancestors thought), this would be an example of Apophenia, also known as Patternicity (the latter is a term coined by science historian Michael Shermer), which is our tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless things; subsequently infusing those patterns with intention and agency (beings other than ourselves).

This is a double-edged sword of our brains that's been both one of our greatest instruments in success as a species and one of our biggest downfalls in reasoning. This is all due to our evolution, and how our belief in unreal things is a by-product of our need to find patterns, to "connect the dots", and to believe those connected patterns are real in order to make predictions for the future that we can plan and prepare for.

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The Evolution of Pattern Recognition

An example of natural selection favoring a species who's more likely to find patterns, and believe that random occurrences have meaning, would be if our ancient ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes. While it could be nothing more than the wind, it could also be a dangerous, unseen predator. What to do?

Those ancestors who were more prone to connecting a pattern between the rustling bushes and a predator would often flee the scene whether they were wrong or correct in their assumptions. When wrong, they've had an error in cognition that caused them to find a meaningful pattern in a meaningless thing; falsely believing there was something there when there wasn't (this is called a False Positive, or believing something is real when it is not). But that’s okay, because the cost of this incorrect belief was minimal—they may have run away for no reason, but they were still alive.

On the other hand, those ancient people not so prone to finding patterns in things would also be wrong on occasion. But they wouldn't be so lucky. Their cognitive error is what’s known as a False Negative, meaning they believed something was not real when it was. Their inability to find and believe patterns, and make leaps of faith based on those patterns, would inevitably lead to their death, sooner or later.

What’s happened above is a prime example of natural selection in action. Where only those more likely to find patterns (both meaningful and meaningless patterns) survived to pass on their genes to the next generation. These genes eventually led to us and our innate inclination to make more False Positive errors than False Negative errors, resulting in a higher likelihood to believe that most of the patterns we hear and see are real, even when they are not. Because the cost of being wrong as a believer was less than the cost of being wrong as a non-believer.

With our innate ability to find patterns in the world and our natural inclinations to associate these patterns with meaning, intention, and agency, we already have the groundwork laid for most of our wildest beliefs.

Examples of Pattern Seeking

  • Believers in aliens associate unidentified objects in the sky with flying saucers (and suspect the face shaped rocks on Mars to be evidence of extraterrestrial life).
  • Theists are more likely to find religious symbols and meaning in natural, random patterns, like burns on a piece of toast, natural phenomena, a stain on a glass panel, etc..
  • Conspiracy theorists connect random or unrelated events and associate them with larger, sinister meanings and government coverups.
  • If gamblers hit three "greens" in a row on roulette, they may see it as a pattern instead of a random event, thus determining their next move based on this; and may even perform rituals before they spin (knocking on wood, blowing on dice, etc.) because they'd won previously after performing them.
  • Those who believe in the paranormal are more apt to assume a noise heard or movement made in the dark is a spirit.
  • People who have suffered visual and auditory hallucinations associate the experiences with sentient beings outside of their body (aliens, spirits, gods,etc.).
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13. Our Brains Chemically Reward Us for Belief

The Natural High Associated With Our Addiction to Belief

Over hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection, our brains have become hard-wired to make us gullible to believing things in order to survive. But what exactly is it our brains are doing in there?

Any behavior that is reinforced by the brain tends to be repeated. For doing things that help us survive and spread our genes, our brains will reward us with squirts of stimulating chemicals that feel really good and make us want more. A couple of obvious examples of this include eating, having sex, and finding patterns that can warn us about dangerous predators and weather. The natural highs we get from doing these things are necessities for survival that the brain has an ability to take note of and remember. Remembering these behaviors, and the rewards we receive from performing them, is why we continue to perform them in the future.

For belief, the most important reward we receive is the one we get from finding patterns, and the apparent chemical responsible is dopamine. Dopamine is directly connected to learning, motivation, and reward, and is released whenever our brain believes we should take strong note of our current behaviors; it’s also what seems to control the brains nucleus accumbens (also known as our reward and pleasure center), which is the same place implicated in the highs derived from both orgasms and cocaine. Furthermore, dopamine is thought to increase the brain's signal-to-noise ratio, meaning that it causes us to find more meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. And if we think a pattern has a meaning, that is a pattern we believe.

What you specifically believe, of course, is due to your environment and other factors mentioned in this article. But the disposition to believe, as shown by thousands of studies of separated twins (see the Examples and Related Links below), is likely to be genetic and heritable.

Examples and studies showing how chemicals affect how we believe

  • Functional scans of Japanese monks show that different types of meditation stimulate different areas of the brain, namely parts of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex. Religious belief is also associated with reduced reactivity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), as is political conservatism. Although the causality of these correlations isn’t clear, it’s interesting that taking initiatives, by contrast, is associated with increased activity in the ACC.
  • The EEGs of Carmelite nuns have shown marked changes during mystical experiences when they felt they were at one with God. In a state like this, individuals may also feel as if they have found the ultimate truth, lost all sense of time and space, are in harmony with mankind and the universe, and are filled with peace, joy, and unconditional love. Neuropharmacological studies show how crucial the activation of the dopamine reward system is in such experiences.
  • Exploring the neurochemistry of superstition, magical thinking, and belief in the paranormal, Peter Brugger and Christine Mohr, at the University of Bristol in England, found that people with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find significance in coincidences and pick out meaning and patterns where there are none.
  • Alzheimer’s disease, which is related to lower levels of dopamine, is linked to the progressive loss of religious interest. The more slowly it progresses, the less religiousness and spirituality are affected. Conversely, hyperreligiosity is associated with fronto-temporal dementia, mania, obsessive-compulsive behavior, schizophrenia, and temporal lobe epilepsy; a number of these disorders are known to make the dopamine reward system more active.
  • Geneticist Dean Hamer, wanting to know if there was a family genetic connection to an addictive personality, gave over a thousand experiment subjects a battery of psychological questionnaires, including ones about spirituality. He found that those who were especially "spiritual" had a dopamine-boosting version of VMAT2 (a gene which regulates the flow of serotonin, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine).
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12. Our Need to Control and Make Sense of Things

How We Spin Elaborate Tales to Comfort Ourselves When Feeling Powerless

A further example of our predisposition to seek meaningful patterns occurs during moments of risk, danger, and when we're faced with situations in which uncertainty abounds and we have no control. If we build a good enough story around an event we can't comprehend, it will alleviate our minds of the stress of not knowing and not being able to understand "how something like this could happen".

When in control of a situation we think clearer and make better decisions; lack of control makes us anxious, causing us to urgently and instinctively seek out patterns to make sense of things (identifying a cause-and-effect pattern in a sequence of events) so that we can regain a feeling of control and comfort in knowing what's going on, and even develop predictions for the future. Unfortunately, due to our haste, the patterns we find are often patterns that aren't really there (leading us to perceive false correlations, see imaginary figures, form superstitious rituals, and embrace conspiracy beliefs, among other things). And when belief arrives before reason, it can be very difficult to talk ourselves out of the belief afterwards.

This isn't just a half-baked idea, either. Numerous studies have been done on the effects of control and pattern perception (see the examples and related links below), all of which with very clear and consistent results. As anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski noted in his studies:

"We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods and technological processes. Further, we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous."

Examples of how lack of control leads to pattern-seeking:

  • In anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's studies of superstitions among Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific, he found that fishermen's levels of superstitious rituals rose the further out to sea they sailed, where the conditions grew more uncertain.
  • A 1977 study found that if you show parachute jumpers who are about to leap out of a plane a photograph of random television noise ("snow") they are more likely to see nonexistent patterns than if they see the same photos earlier.
  • A 1994 study showed that anxious first-year MBA students are far more conspiratorially minded than their more secure second-year colleagues.
  • A 1942 study found that when ambiguous images are shown to both hungry and satiated people, the hungry were far more likely to see food in the images.
  • Many conspiracy theories make up causes and motives to events that are more rationally seen as accidents and random acts of violence in an attempt to bring order, easier understanding, and a sense of control to that which has no order or control. This applies also to events such as the JFK assassination and 9/11 which already have understood causes, because no one wants to think such monumental, world-altering events could be caused by such simple reasons and regular people; it's more comforting to attribute the events to equally powerful government entities. (Even indirect control is desirable; i.e. if we can't control the weather, understanding and being aware of it at least helps us prepare for it — "knowing" is another form of control.)
  • We develop elaborate creation myths, sun gods, rain gods, war gods, and gods of the ocean. We believe we can communicate with our gods and influence their behavior, because by doing so we gain some control and impose some order on the chaotic mysteries of the world.
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11. Our Need to Know and Accept Easy Explanations

Another big reason (not unrelated to our need for control) that we can't be content with being ignorant to things we don't yet have the answer to has to do with the fact that while the human brain is extraordinarily good at posing questions, people have an extremely low tolerance for ambiguity. That is to say, we really can't stand not knowing things,