The Brain and Cause and effect

Why people believe that invisible agents
control the world

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind — the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others — we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agenticity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet-masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. Even the belief that the government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity, with President Barack Obama being touted as “the one” with almost messianic powers who will save us.

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them, well documented in the new book SuperSense (HarperOne, 2009) by University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood. Examples: children believe that the sun can think and follows them around; because of such beliefs, they often add smiley faces on sketched suns. Adults typically refuse to wear a mass murderer’s sweater, believing that “evil” is a supernatural force that imparts its negative agency to the wearer (and, alternatively, that donning Mr. Rogers’s cardigan will make you a better person). A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality is transplanted with the organ. Genital-shaped foods (bananas, oysters) are often believed to enhance sexual potency. Subjects watching geometric shapes with eye spots interacting on a computer screen conclude that they represent agents with moral intentions.

“Many highly educated and intelligent individuals experience a powerful sense that there are patterns, forces, energies and entities operating in the world,” Hood explains. “More important, such experiences are not substantiated by a body of reliable evidence, which is why they are supernatural and unscientific. The inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.”

We are natural-born supernaturalists.




Michael Shermer "The believing brain"

In May 2011, Shermer published The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.[55][56][57] In a review for Commonweal, writer Joseph Bottum described Shermer as more of a popularizer of science and stated, "science emerges from The Believing Brain as a full-blown ideology, lifted out of its proper realm and applied to all the puzzles of the world."[44]

The term “patternicity,” as writer Michael Shermer explains in a 2008 Scientific American article, refers to the human predisposition “to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” It is an attempt to impose order on what seems like chaos.

So we are left with the legacy of two types of thinking errors: Type 1 Error: believing a falsehood and Type 2 Error: rejecting a truth. ... Believers in UFOs, alien abductionsESP, and psychic phenomena have committed a Type 1 Error in thinking: they are believing a falsehood. ... It's not that these folks are ignorant or uninformed; they are intelligent but misinformed. Their thinking has gone wrong.

A prey animal sees a rustle in the trees but cannot tell that it is just the wind. 

If it assumes it is a lion and runs away. If it is wind then the prey has committed a Type 1 error - penalty  wasted energy. 

Alternatively  prey animal sees a rustle in the trees, assumes it is nothing - just the a wind. If it is a lion - a Type 2 error - penalty is it dies. 

Prey animals are selected to believe the that there is a cause (conspiracy). As a prey animal, we are attracted to explanations over uncertainty. Hence religion and  conspiracies all feed a deep seated need.

Belief formation – A driving force for brain evolution

Author links open overlay panelRüdiger J.SeitzabHans-FerdinandAngelc


The topic of belief has been neglected in the natural sciences for a long period of time. Recent neuroscience research in non-human primates and humans, however, has shown that beliefs are the neuropsychic product of fundamental brain processes that attribute affective meaning to concrete objects and events, enabling individual goal setting, decision making and maneuvering in the environment. With regard to the involved neural processes they can be categorized as empirical, relational, and conceptual beliefs. Empirical beliefs are about objects and relational beliefs are about events as in tool use and in interactions between subjects that develop below the level of awareness and are up-dated dynamically. Conceptual beliefs are more complex being based on narratives and participation in ritual acts. As neural processes are known to require computational space in the brain, the formation of inceasingly complex beliefs demands extra neural resources. Here, we argue that the evolution of human beliefs is related to the phylogenetic enlargement of the brain including the parietal and medial frontal cortex in humans.

Commenting on the seminal neuroimaging study on beliefs by Harris et al., 2007Sachs and Hirsch, 2008 suggested that human beings tend to accept appearances as reality until they prove otherwise.

Beliefs are our brain’s way of making sense of and navigating our complex world. They are mental representations of the ways our brains expect things in our environment to behave, and how things should be related to each other—the patterns our brain expects the world to conform to

 As a prediction machine, it must take shortcuts for pattern recognition as it processes the vast amounts of information received from the environment by its sense organ outgrowths. Beliefs allow the brain to distill complex information, enabling it to quickly categorize and evaluate information and to jump to conclusions. For example, beliefs are often concerned with understanding the causes of things: If ‘b’ closely followed ‘a’, then ‘a’ might be assumed to have been the cause of ‘b’.

These shortcuts to interpreting and predicting our world often involve connecting dots and filling in gaps, making extrapolations and assumptions based on incomplete information and based on similarity to previously recognized patterns. In jumping to conclusions, our brains have a preference for familiar conclusions over unfamiliar ones. Thus, our brains are prone to error, sometimes seeing patterns where there are none. This may or may not be subsequently identified and corrected by error-detection mechanisms. It’s a trade-off between efficiency and accuracy.

TED Anil Seth

Imagine being a brain. You're locked inside a bony skull, trying to figure what's out there in the world. There's no lights inside the skull. There's no sound either. All you've got to go on is streams of electrical impulses which are only indirectly related to things in the world, whatever they may be. So perception -- figuring out what's there -- has to be a process of informed guesswork in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its prior expectations or beliefs about the way the world is to form its best guess of what caused those signals. The brain doesn't hear sound or see light. What we perceive is its best guess of what's out there in the world.

Now, I leave you with three implications of all this. First, just as we can misperceive the world, we can misperceive ourselves when the mechanisms of prediction go wrong. Understanding this opens many new opportunities in psychiatry and neurology, because we can finally get at the mechanisms rather than just treating the symptoms in conditions like depression and schizophrenia.

The idea of the brain as a prediction engine is very old. In neuroscience, it is often traced to the German physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz who first formalized the idea of perception as "unconscious inference." More recently, the idea has gained momentum in various new guises, like predictive coding, the Bayesian brain and the free energy principle — see Andy Clark's Surfing Uncertainty and Jakob Hohwy’s The Predictive Mind.


Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning. When a movement is repeated over time, the brain creates a long-term muscle memory for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Muscle memory is found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding bicycles, driving motor vehicles, playing ball sportstyping on keyboards, entering PINs, playing musical instruments,[1] poker,[2] martial arts, and dancing.