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November 29, 2008


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> That's what the left brain does: try to
> produce order out of perceptions. It
> analyzes, makes stories out of sequences
> of events, comes up with elaborate
> hypotheses.

A primitive man sees that there's a pattern where people who eat a particular berry end up dead the next day. Perceiving the pattern allows him to avoid the berry, and thus survive and procreate. Over generations, the tendency to see patterns gets reinforced.

Since this tendency is strong, we end up seeing patterns even when they're not there. We may start believing that if we do a particular dance, it'll rain. This may be non-optimal behavior, but the result -- excessive dancing -- is hardly life-threatening. Unlike eating poison berries.

The tendency to see patterns whether or not they exist is part of our genetic heritage because seeing too few patterns may have deadly consequences... whereas seeing too many patterns is nothing worse than stupid.


Stuart, you're right. Evolution seems to have tilted us in the direction of finding stories or explanations because, as you say, it's more advantageous to think "that sound is a tiger about to eat me" than "it's just the wind."

Gazzaniga also writes, "The left-brain interpreter makes sense out of all the other processes. It takes all the input that is coming in and puts it together in a makes-sense story, even though it may be completely wrong."

The obvious problem here is that religion takes one-of-a-kind stories, such as those in the Bible, and doesn't test to see whether they are right or wrong. It makes universal truths out of single stories, leading to serious errors.

So we need to recognize the biases built in to us by evolution. Sometimes they are functional, sometimes not. Knowing the difference is key.

> So we need to recognize the biases built
> in to us by evolution. Sometimes they are
> functional, sometimes not. Knowing the
> difference is key.

The simple example I like to use:

When I was born, during those first few minutes of life, it was vital to my survival that I find a nipple and suck on it. Surely vast amounts of DNA coding had evolved to make me instinctively go for my mother's breast.

Once I had my first gulp of breast milk, the experience itself was enough to "teach" me to return to the nipple next time I was hungry. The blind instinct that drove me to my first meal had done its job, providing a huge boost to my survival chances.

But because of the slow and clumsy way that humans function (as information storage devices), that instinct that fullfilled its purpose during my first moments of life, remains with me for decades and decades after it's done its job. I may find myself sucking on cigarettes or beer bottles, driven by that old instinct that's no longer so helpful.

Isn't this a huge part of how Western psychology functions? That is, it's a process of identifying those habits and patterns that served me well as a helpless child... but may now be counter-productive as an adult. When the instincts/habits are unconscious, they control me (making me e.g. smoke and drink against my better judgement). But the hope of psychology is that once the pattern is made conscious, I'll no longer be a slave to following it.

Just so with religion. Blindly following an authority was essential to survival when I was a child. I can see why DNA promotes such following, every bit as much as it promotes nipple-sucking. But once the rational mind has sufficiently developed, the instinct/habit of blindly following authority can be recognized, and perhaps let go to some extent.


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