That's No Tiger, That's My Mother-in-Law

Our brains evolved to see threats everywhere.

Posted Sep 07, 2012

Our brains are especially good at finding patterns, even when there are none, writes Mike McRae, an Australian science writer, in Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs, and Bad Ideas.

We evolved in tribes. And we often continue to think the way we did in tribal times. That can work toward survival, or it can seriously mislead us by distorting reality.

In Tribal Science, McRae details numerous ways in which science and the sharing of scientific ideas have helped us move from tribal thinking to a more reality-oriented and accurate global thinking.

Our brains, it turns out, are seldom happy with "I don't know," McRae points out. They help us recognize the tiger hidden in the leafy overgrowth. If we sometimes mistake a certain shaped shadow as a predator, and it turns out to be nothing but a shadow (or an unexpected relative), we haven't lost much by running away.

But the same brain also finds patterns that aren't there, such as when believers are certain they detect the image of a deity in a water stain or a piece of toast. That sort of error is the result of the brain taking a gamble on asserting meaning where there is none.

Only by using the scientific method to test some of these conclusions drawn by the tribal brain, and by sharing our results, can we begin to understand what's real and what isn't. Our brains used to have to decide very quickly what was a threat and what wasn't. It was thus easy to be gullible and find meaning in random events or constellations of grime on a window – just to play it safe.

In modern times, while it's more laborious, it makes more sense for us to train our brains to be skeptical and to take the time to test reality.

Tribal Science includes an intriguing and lengthy discussion of the famous relationship between Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. The former was a magician who came to believe that contacting "the other side" was only a trick, but Doyle, deeply wishing to make contact with deceased family members, remained a believer in the supernatural. Such differences strained their friendship.

Consider the tribal brain's preference for simplifying complex matters in the interests of survival. And think about that the next time you see, hear, or read something that has you gasping, "But that argument is full of fallacies! How can they come to such crazy conclusions!?" They're probably just allowing their less evolved tribal brains to take charge.

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Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D

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