Fearful Symmetries

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04 March, 2010

Why People Believe Weird Things - Michael Shermer @ the Union Theatre, 1 March 2010

Founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, was here earlier this week to contribute to the Distinguished Lecture Series' theme of our imperfect cognition. First there was Dan Ariely who noted our irrational behavior from an economic standpoint. And on Monday Shermer came to town to explain why people believe weird things.


(Photo horked from The Badger Herald.)


He described us humans at pattern-seeking primates driven by a Belief Engine. We find meaningful patterns in meaningful things as well as those that lack meaning as well. Moreover, he claimed, our brains' default setting is to assume that all patterns are real and meaningful. Shermer argued that our grey matter works this way due to evolutionary pressure. In his example, he asked us to imagine we were the earliest members of our species. You find that there's a rustle in your hedgerow. It could be the wind or it could be a tiger looking for supper. Assuming it's a predator, you can flee or prepare to defend yourself. Now, if it's really just the wind you're OK. If it is a tiger, then you're prepared. However, if you assume the rustle is simply the wind, you find yourself in the position of Chef in Apocalypse Now.

Shermer continued by giving the briefest description of the brain's synapses and such before showing the audience some optical illusions and illustrations of people finding meaningful patterns in the meaningless, e.g. – people seeing the Virgin Mary on toast. While looking at a page of dots and dashes until you find the cow in it was fun, the really interesting bits were those times when he alluded to research and got down to the nitty gritty of our brains.

For instance, there's the fusiform gyrus which has a lot to do with facial recognition. There are fast-firing cells which look at only a few points on the face and then there are slow-firing cells which detect facial details. By way of example he showed the famous picture of the "face" on Mars created by shadows. Newer photos of the Martian rock formation clearly showed it was not a face as our pattern-seeking brains discerned from previous photographs. Another interesting bit of cranial trivia was how stimulation of the temporal lobe can induce trances or various others feelings we associate with religion such intense meaningfulness or a depersonalization such that you are one with the universe/God. Shermer also noted how sleep deprivation caused our brains to go haywire. He related to us how in 1983 he participated in a bike ride across America and stayed awake for some 83 hours for the first leg. When he finally stopped to rest, he thought that his team of friends who fed and watered him on his ride were aliens who'd come to abduct him. In one of the night's many humorous moments, Shermer showed some news footage from the bike ride in which he'd been interviewed and admitted his hallucinations.

Perhaps even more important than demonstrating why people believe weird things was showing that it is very difficult to get them to stop. Citing another recent study involving scanning the brains of people evaluating various statements with an MRI, Shermer noted that we evaluate statements we already believe very quickly. However, the process is much slower for statements we don't believe or are uncertain about. It is easier for us to simply reaffirm what we believe than it is to challenge our beliefs. This explains why telling your average Teabagger that there are, in truth, significantly more white people on Medicaid rolls than big scary illegal immigrants from Mexico doesn't set them free of their racism/Hispanophobia.

One thing Shermer didn't talk about, perhaps because of a lack of MRI scans, is why some people stop believing some weird things. He noted that in his younger days he was a born again Christian. So what happened in his brain that he became a godless heathen? Why do we stop assigning meaning to meaningless patterns?

All in all, it was a great lecture. Shermer is a humorous fellow and he made it a fun multimedia event. He even played "Stairway to Heaven" backwards for us so we could try to discern all the Satanic messages Jimmy Page put in there including one about a very dolorous tool shed. I suppose that anyone who has looked into this material before didn't walk away having learned much of anything new. But Shermer gave a good primer for the uninitiated and was entertaining to boot.

N.B. – Neurologist V. S. Ramachandran will be here next week to round out the Distinguished Lecture Series' cognitive trifecta.
|| Palmer, 3:54 PM

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