Friday, January 29, 2016

Evolution of the Religious Mind: Finding Patterns

Pattern recognition is not unique to Homo sapiens. In fact, many animals are adept at perceiving cause and effect relationships in their environment. Taking advantage of such patterns to optimize survival and reproductive success is the key to many species’ longevity. In humans, with our capacity to comprehend complex systems and to retain them in our individual and collective memories, both the advantages and disadvantages of our ancient pattern recognition “software” becomes magnified exponentially.

“Patternicity” is a term coined by Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic Magazine) to explain our innate pattern-seeking nature. He argues that evolution has primed our brains to see patterns where none exist. In the paper “The Evolution of Superstitious and Superstition-like Behaviour” in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Harvard University biologist Kevin R. Foster and University of Helsinki biologist Hanna Kokko tested his theory through complex evolutionary modeling. They concluded:

“The inability of individuals—human or otherwise—to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them will often force them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones. From here, the evolutionary rationale for superstition is clear: natural selection will favour strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.”

For example, if our ancient ancestor heard a rustling in a nearby bush, it was always safer to assume it was a dangerous predator, rather than to believe it was anything more benign. Simply put, sometimes it’s advantageous to perceive things that aren’t there.

Superstition in Animals
As previously mentioned, patternicity is not unique to humans, and neither is superstition. In a now famous experiment, renowned Behavioral Psychologist B.F. Skinner was able to elicit behaviors in pigeons akin to those performed by humans in religious rituals. In many of Skinner’s other experiments, he would attempt to train animals to perform various behaviors by giving them food as a reward whenever they performed the behaviors correctly. In this experiment, he had no specific behaviors to teach the pigeons. Instead, he simply gave them food at regular (e.g. 15 second) time intervals. The effect: the pigeons tended to repeat whatever they recall themselves doing before the last time they were given food[1]. They would nod their head, flap their wings, turn counterclockwise, and perform other actions over and over again until they were fed again. As Skinner put it:

“The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances.” [2]

Is this so different from believing that every time you pray, something good happens? To me, the only major difference is that, in humans, these sort of “accidental connections” lead to very complex systems of belief reinforced and adapted through years of cultural evolution.

The Evolution of Persistent Beliefs
So, let’s say that at one point, a long time ago, ancestors of modern humans really needed it to rain so that their crops would grow. Given that they believed the rain was controlled by some sort of invisible human-like agent, they figured they would need to appease this agent in order for him to turn on the faucet. They decided to dance for this agent and, to ensure there’s no miscommunication, chant “please make it rain” over and over again. After several attempts, it rained. Thousands of years later, human descendents of these people still dance to make it rain.

Now, let’s say a visiting trader from a faraway land noticed these dances usually didn’t lead to rain. He decided to document the success rate, and shared the negative results with the local populace. Despite the evidence, no one would be convinced that rain dancing didn’t work. Why? Well, one evolutionary explanation is that of Cultural Cognition[3]. Recall from my last post that humans evolved to possess pro-group behaviors. One of these behaviors is the tendency to view the world through the lens of one’s culture, and to see all challenges to the beliefs of one’s culture as a threat. Thus, as an innate response to these threats, people entrench their minds against even the most rational of ideas or definitive evidence.  In evolutionary terms, this show of solidarity strengthens the group, and thus the likelihood that its members will survive to pass on their genes. In the modern context, this leads to climate change deniers, creationism, faith healing fatalities, and other unfortunate behaviors and beliefs.

Like other animals, humans are prone to perceiving patterns that do not exist, and we alter our behaviors in quite strange and irrational ways due to our beliefs in the imaginary. For pigeons, this tendency may lead to bobbing heads and flapping wings. For humans, our beliefs become solidified by our innate desire to conform to our peer groups. Unfortunately, this leads many to stay silent when rational voices are most needed: when human lives are at stake.


Michael Shermer on Patternicity:

Great Article on Cognitive Dissonance and Cultural Cognition

Andy Thomson Discusses Ideas from his Book “Why we believe in god(s)”

TIME Article on “The Evolution of Faith”

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Psychology of Faith

Theists are in love with the idea of faith. They often use the word as though it is a magical and indescribable force adhering them to their religious beliefs. However, as with all other aspects of the human experience, it is not beyond description or scientific investigation. Upon review, faith is an inherent drive which is ultimately necessary for our emotional wellbeing. At the same time, despite its positive attributes, it can be quite dangerous if taken too far.

What is Faith?

According to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” describes it as “belief that is not based on proof.”[1] I prefer my own definition, which is “a belief which is motivated by positive emotional outcomes, yet is founded on little to no evidence.” From the theistic perspective, faith is a compulsion to believe in God, which is rooted in the human soul. However, as I will explain in future posts, attributes commonly associated with the human soul such as this “compulsion” can be readily explained by psychology and neuroscience. Thus, the word “emotional” should sufficiently accommodate the theistic experience, and place it on equal ground with other non-religious forms of faith.


Dispositional optimism is a term coined by psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier meaning “the global expectation that good things will be plentiful in the future and bad things scarce.”[2] This is a form of faith because most healthy people have an emotional preference for positive outcomes over negative ones, yet there is insufficient evidence to predict all future events. Optimism is strongly associated with greater psychological and physical health. For example, it has been linked to an increased feeling of life satisfaction, improved ability to cope with adversity, better health habits, quicker recovery rates from heart surgery, and increased success in sports and work.[3]

Positive Illusions

Just because optimism leads to healthier, happier people does not mean they it is founded in reality. Faith, after all, is the belief in something for which there is little-to-no evidence. Psychology has coined the term “positive illusion” to explain unfounded, yet psychologically healthy, beliefs.[4] In general, most people harbor these 3 positive illusions:[5]

  • That they are unusually capable and virtuous
  • That they have more control over events than they do
  • That they are optimistic, believing misfortune unlikely and good outcomes likely

There are many benefits to maintaining these unrealistic beliefs about ourselves. For instance, they enhance our self esteem and outlook on life, they motivate others to have greater confidence in us, and they inspire persistence when dealing with difficult problems.[6] Despite these positive effects, unshakable positive illusions can lead to many negative outcomes as well. We can all think of someone we know who is far too confident for their own good, and who makes poor life decisions based on their unrealistic expectations of the future. As Proverbs 16:18 put it “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

The “Secret” and Gambling Addiction

The Secret is a bestselling book written by Rhonda Byrne which claims that the universe is capable of bending to your will as long as you know how to communicate with it. The book suggests that you must visualize your successes and be thankful to the universe for all current and future successes.[7] My favorite example from the book (which I had the misfortune of listening to) was a visualization technique for those who wish to be financially successful. It entails putting an extra zero to the right of your income when doing your bills so it appears as though you have more money than you actually possess. To me, these kinds of “techniques” are less about communicating with the universe, and more about tricking yourself into having an optimistic outlook. This, of course, may produce the same positive effects derived from optimism and other positive illusions described above. However, “The Secret” DVD claims “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you. It always works; it works every time, with every person” which is quite a bold claim.[8] Consider pathological gamblers. Psychological studies show they tend to believe they are in control of the outcomes of the games in which they play, and they are very confident in their success.[9] One can imagine no better practitioners of “The Secret” than gambling addicts, who likely visualize their success on a daily basis and sincerely believe “this time will be different.” However, 20% to 30% of pathological gamblers have declared bankruptcy, compared to 4.2% of low-risk and non-gamblers.[10] In other words, “The Secret” does not work.


Faith is ultimately a good thing. We need it in order to be healthy, happy, and successful. However, it is often illusory, and can lead to making poor decisions due to overconfidence. Thus, despite theists’ conception of faith as knowledge of ultimate truth, it is merely indicative of psychological preferences which may or may not be grounded in reality.


Great article by Malcolm Gladwell on the effects of overconfidence

Great article about optimism and positive illusions

Great critique of “The Secret” by Skeptic Magazine

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Do Humans Have a Soul?

In my previous 3 posts, I’ve provided evidence that religiosity and spiritual experiences are not based on supernatural forces, and free will is merely an illusion. Given this information, is there still room for an immaterial soul? Based on the best available evidence regarding brain functioning, there is no reason to believe anything akin to the human soul exists.

The Mind and Body

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the soul as the “subject of human consciousness and freedom; soul and body together form one unique human nature.”[1] In other words, theists believe the mind is controlled by the soul, which is separate from the body (brain). Studies have shown the belief in this mind/body distinction is present in infants and young children, suggesting it is innate.[2] However, just because we naturally feel that our thoughts and personalities exist outside of our bodies does not mean this view is accurate. Damage

If our minds, consciousness, and ultimately the essence of our true selves are based on supernatural forces outside of our physical bodies, then no amount of brain damage should alter a person’s character. However, this is far from the truth. In fact, families and friends of individuals with traumatic brain injuries often use the word “stranger” to describe them.[3][4] Those who experience damage to their frontal or temporal lobes, amygdala, and/or hippocampus often experience agitation, volatile emotions, memory impairment, verbal and physical aggression, and impaired impulse control.[5] In one of the most famous cases of brain damage, railroad foreman Phineas Gage had an iron rod driven through his skull damaging his frontal lobe.[6] His physician noted that “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage’.”[7]

Alzheimer's Disease

Anyone who has ever known someone with dementia can understand the effects a brain disorder can have on a person’s character. On top of memory issues, Alzhemier’s disease (a form of dementia) can lead to moodiness, paranoia, compulsivity, decreased agreeableness, and decreased conscientiousness.[8][9] My grandmother had the disease for many years, and there is one event that always sticks in my mind as evidence that she was fundamentally changed. While she was always a very kind and loving person, she was never one for physical affection. In fact, I cannot think of any time in which she offered someone a hug or a kiss. However, when I visited her in her assisted living facility at a time in which her Alzhemer’s left her confused but not incapacitated, she greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. While this gesture may seem insignificant to most, it came as quite a shock to me since it was so out of character. Seat of Consciousness

As one Christian blogger put it, “consciousness seems to point to an immaterial self that observes the physical world.”[10] However, Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio would beg to differ. He believes he has isolated the mechanisms behind this seemingly mystical phenomenon, and has broken it down into 3 levels of “self”:[11]

  • Protoself: “[It] corresponds to a gathering of information regarding the state of the body. It is constructed in the brain stem and it generates feelings that signify our existence. The protoself is the necessary foundation of the overall self, and in its absence one cannot be conscious”
  • Core Self: “It is constructed in a dialogue between the brain stem and a few parts of the cerebral cortex. It yields a sense of the ‘here and now’, devoid of historical perspective. It gives us a consciousness of the moment.”
  • Autobiographical Self: “[It] creates the more or less coherent picture of our history, a narrative with a lived past and an anticipated future. The narrative is culled from real events, from imaginary events, and from past interpretations and re-interpretations of events. Identity emerges from the autobiographical self.”

Given that the cerebral cortex is responsible for much of our advanced cognitive functioning, it makes sense that it would be involved in consciousness.[12] However, the brain stem is much less of an obvious player in the phenomenon, since it is merely a primitive structure tied to automatic life supporting functions.[13] In his TED video entitled “The Quest to Understand Consciousness” Antonio explained that damage to the upper portion of the brain stem leads to coma and a complete loss of consciousness, or as he put it “you lose the grounding of the self and you no longer have access to the feeling of your experience.”[14] On the other hand, when the lower portion of the brain stem is damaged, paralysis and not a loss of consciousness is the result.[15] Thus, our “self” is ultimately tied to this particular region in our brain stem.


As the same Christian blogger I referred to earlier stated “Although a neuroscientist may have more knowledge of my brain states than me, he can never achieve a greater knowledge of my mental life than me, for only I have access to this.”[16] For the time being, the blogger is quite correct. However, scientists have started to develop technology that may lead to the ability to read people’s thoughts. For example, researchers at Cornell University used fMRI scans to discern which of four imaginary people their subjects were thinking about.[17] In another study at UC Berkeley, scientists were able to reconstruct movie clips that subjects had viewed using an fMRI scanner and a software program that pulled 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos.[18]


Given that our personalities and even our sense of self can be irreversibly altered by damaging parts of the brain, and since scientists have already begun developing mind-reading technologies, there seems no reason to believe that our minds exist outside of our bodies. Thus, if the human soul is synonymous with our minds and the core of our selves, its existence is highly improbable.


Great video “Antonio Demassio: The quest to understand consciousness”

Fascinating paper regarding our innate dualistic beliefs

Good article about dealing with a family member that has severe brain damage

Another article about family members with brain damage