Category Archives: Research

Michael Shermer’s Believing Brain

This looks like it may well be a good year for scientific books on belief. My paperback “The Science of Superstition” is out later this month and Robert Park (author of Voodoo Science) has a new book, “Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science,” out in August. Moreover, one of the high priests of skepticism, Michael Shermer, also has a forthcoming book on belief, tentatively entitled, “The Believing Brain.”

Back in February, Shermer gave a TED talk where he gave us a tantalizing 15min glimpse of what will be in his new book.  In true Shermer tradition, it was a very entertaining presentation, and I was very pleased that he highlighted the ADE651 story about bomb-detecdting in Iraq.  I was even more delighted to see he referred to my work in his Slant article.

I agree with Shermer’s main “patternicity” idea that we are inclined to ascribing agency everywhere. He also referred to Susan Blackmore’s seminal work on signal-to-noise thresholds in believers which is strongly associated with supernatural belief propensity.  In much the same way I argued in “The Science of Superstition” (formerly known as SuperSense), Shermer supports the idea that the natural inclination in humans is to believe and the skepticism and the scientific approach is unnatural. This of course, is an old idea and we are both indebted to the great 18th century Scottish rationalist philosopher David Hume, who said over 200 years ago,

“We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and  good-will to everything, that hurts or pleases us.”

Michael uses the modern language of statistics to explain the propensity of humans to detecting all manner of patterns that we have documented so much in this blog, as Type I errors – rejecting the null hypothesis. In other words, saying something is present when in fact it is not. This is much better than making a Type II error which is rejecting a real signal as not being there when in fact it is.

Why are Type II errors a disadvantage and how could a Type I bias have been selected for?   Stewart Guthrie in his book, “Faces in the Clouds,” argues that our intuitive pattern processing biases us towards seeing faces which leads us to assume that hidden agents surround us. Building on David Hume’s, “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds,” observation, Guthrie presents the case that our mind is predisposed to see and infer the presence of others which explains why we are prone to see faces in ambiguous patterns. If you are in the woods and suddenly see what appears to be a face, it is better to assume that it is one rather than ignore it. It could be an assailant out to get you. Why else would they be hiding in the shadows?  In this case it is always better to err on the side of caution.

Of course, there is still much further research to be done, such as why are there individual differences and why does our shift to Type I errors increase under certain circumstances. These are some of the questions that we are currently researching in our lab but I look forward to reading Michael’s account which I know will be eminently entertaining and engaging.


Filed under book publicity, In the News, Research

Speaking in Tongues

I came across this ABC report while looking for items on speaking in tongues – the peculiar practice of talking gibberish that is popular among Pentecostal Christians. Speaking in tongues or “glossolalia” appears to be another example where individuals seek an altered state – which they interpret was evidence of the holy spirit.

The study is now a bit dated and I wonder if there has been any follow-up, but Andrew Neuberg (the “God – spotter neuroscientist) reported back in 2006 that speaking in tongues is associated with increased emotional arousal and reduced frontal activity compared to praying in English. The news reports seem to make alot out of this difference (that’s the media for you) but I am not really too surprised. Speaking in English in a meaningful way (even praying!)y requires effortful thinking whereas talking gibberish clearly doesn’t and if you like talking gibberish, then no wonder your arousal centres are activated. Still, I thought it was interesting…. or should I say, “Plehu, bhat, plehu, gibita kalis”


Filed under Research

Woo Begins in the Womb

Are you a bit girly?

Did you know that the ratio of length of your ring finger to your index finger is a marker for the amount of testosterone you were exposed to as a foetus? Testosterone is part of the process that turns little girls into little boys (that’s one of the reasons that men have nipples!). In males the ring finger is typically longer than the index finger and the larger that ratio, the more butch you are. It also turns out that the more butch you are, the less likely you are to believe in the supernatural.

recent study of  over a thousand Austrian men and women found that  a correlation between the digit ration and supernatural belief. Martin Voracek, a psychologist at the University of Vienna, found that the ratio of length of the ring finger to the index finger predicted belief. Voracek found that “higher feminized” digit ratio in men correlated with stronger paranormal and superstitious beliefs, even when controlled for age, education, adult height and weight, and birth length and weight. Shorter feminized digit ratios in women correlated with more superstitious beliefs, as did a woman’s lighter weight at birth. So it would appear that there is some biological basis for individual differences in supernatural beliefs as I have pointed out in SuperSense.

When I wrote a guest article for the Skepchik Blog, about why there are more female believers in woo, I got slammed down by a whole bunch of naysayers, (especially one sarky commentator) claiming that it was all to do with environment. Well, of course, there is usually some role of environment but if you haven’t figured by now, there is a little bit of the nativist about me.


Filed under Research, supernatural

Shaking the Dead Hand of Plato

Last month I had the honour to chair Richard Dawkins when he gave a talk in Bristol about his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We exchanged respective signed copies of our books and I have been slowly working my way through his though I have to say I have not yet finished – a million writing deadlines of my own to complete.

But I did want to write a post on the opening to Chapter 2 entitled, “Dogs, Cows and Cabbages.” In it Dawkins, asks the question, “Why is it so difficult for people to accept natural selection,” and he gives the answer, that when I read it,   knocked me off my seat – essentialism. If you have not read SuperSense, a large proportion of it addresses this notion that we believe the world is inhabited by essences and that this explains many supernatural beliefs and practices. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see it pop up in Dawkins’ latest book where he calls its influence, “the dead hand of Plato.”

However, if I had researched SuperSense more thoroughly I would have discovered that essentialism is also the answer given by Ernst Mayr for why people have a problem with natural selection. Mayr points out that since the time of Plato, people have assumed that there is a true identity to reality that cannot necessarily been seen directly. It’s like there is an ideal form for all the things we detect in the world. So there is an essential dog, an essential tree and so forth. All the variation we experience in the world is interpreted as some deviation from an ideal form – a form that is essential. But such a viewpoint is inconsistent with continual change and evolution. Origins of species through natural selection does not fit with the Platonic view and this is a point that I made in the book. You don’t have to teach children this. They naturally assume that all species are essentially different from each other and that’s why they have a problem with accepting Darwin.

Of course, I go further than Dawkins and Mayr in my theory. Essentialism is not just a belief about true identity. It manifests as a supernatural force that can contaminate reality. There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth, and indeed I would argue that we essentialize those things we consider unique such as individuals. I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession – maybe even a signed book. This is one reason why some people don’t want to touch or wear the killer’s cardigan. It also explains why we find the notions of duplication, genetic modification and all manner of procedures that violate the integrity of the individual as abhorrent. We are not necessarily aware of this way of thinking and as I have been at pains to point out, it may operate intuitively, but I think that every child born is still shaking the dead hand of Plato.


Filed under Research

Happy Birthday Sesame Street

With events at Fort Hood likely to cast a shadow over the coming days, I thought I would direct your attention to something more light-hearted. Today marks the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. In a world of darkness and cynicism, it is important to remember and celebrate these nuggets of innocence and joy. But before you think that I have gone completely sappy, have a look at this alternative version of Sesame Street’s Count singing about what he loves to do best. If you are young enough then you probably hear the Count “counting.” If you are a bit older, then you probably heard something completely different! Shame on you.


The Kaniza Illusion

This is an auditory equivalent of the visual Kaniza illusion where we fill in missing information based on past experiences. For example, in the figure on the right, you should easily see a white triangle that is not really there. The brain interprets this configuration as a white triangle floating above three dark circles. It is the most likely explanation that would produce this pattern and so the brain creates the perception of this triangle. However, the amazing thing about these illusory effects is that the brain generates neural activity in the networks that would be active if the missing information was really there. In other words, these illusions are based on real neural activity. In which case, if someone says they have heard or seen something that isn’t really there, then as far as the brain is concerned it is! Now that’s spooky.


Filed under Research

Fascinating Interview

I am off to Texas next week to attend the Cognitive Development Society meeting in San Antonio- ye hah!

Prisoner 3165

Prisoner 3165

I will not be posting but I will be checking in periodically to read your comments. In case you get lonesome for me, here is the interview that I did at Googleplex during the SciFoo Meeting in July at Mountain View, California. Check out the jazzy piano at the beginning by the talented neuroscientist turned-musician, Vijay Iye (actually he was doing his own thing). I love the ethereal choir as well.


Filed under General Thoughts, Research

Sam Harris Discusses SuperSense

The very talented and smart Dr. Sam Harris (I am not sure whether he has finished his doctorate so I apologise if I have not given him the correct title) has just published a neuroimaging study of believers and non-believers in the online journal, Public Library of Science (PLoS) where he reports on the brain activation when evaluating the truth of religious (“Jesus Christ really performed the miracles attributed to him in the Bible”) and non-religious propositions (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military leader”). They found differential activation in the brains of believers and non-believers. Thank goodness for that or we would all be screwed! For a full exposition on that remark, see my discussion of mind body dualism in my book SuperSense.

Brain imaging is an immensely seductive technique as it resonates (ha –ha  neuroscience joke) with how we intuitively think the brain works. We like pictures of the internal workings of the brain. I should point out that Harris and colleagues are comparative experts in this fields as I am a virgin imager but about to pop my neuroimaging cherry later in Nov when we embark on a project of neuroimaging believers and non-believers as well. I too am looking for differential activation but one that is counter-intuitive to what one would expect. That’s where I think the technique can be valuable so stay posted. A recent review of the whole methodology of neuroimaging of social functions was highly critical claiming that most studies were subject to experimenter bias. Let’s hope our study avoids this pitfall and produces publishable results though the initial seduction for publishing neuroimaging research seems to have worn off in the scientific community in recent years.

You used to be able to get any imaging study published in the top science journals Nature and Science in the 1990’s but that’s all changed now – every department seems to have scanner now desperately seeking funding to operate. So where does one publish? The Public Library of Science of PLoS is a fast track journal but you have to pay to have your studies published there. There is something that sticks in my throat about that. It smacks of correspondence degrees but I guess all journals have costs and may that will be the way of the future. More importantly it has free public access which is great.

If you did not know, Sam Harris is the best-selling author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” and has some of the best put-downs I have ever heard when confronted about his out-spoken views in public. He has now returned his attention to his science and I expect that he is enjoying a welcomed relief to the vitriol that must have come his way. So I was delighted to see his recent papers. I blogged his intriguing finding about cognitive dissonance earlier and he seems to gathering empirical evidence to support his theory that belief is primarily transmitted by others.

However, Harris and colleagues’s discussion of my hypothesis (never a theory till proven) in the current paper that beliefs are a combination of intuitive reasoning embedded in culture is somewhat misrepresented and to say that Justin Barrett and I are coming from the same position is simply not true – Barrett interprets cognitive biases as intelligent design! I was pleased that Harris and colleagues acknowledge the supersense hypothesis but a bit dismayed when they dismissed it with the straw man statement, “Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of religion, it seems unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the why the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in the God of Abraham while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do.”

Well dah. Come on Sam, I am not like the others. You didn’t read the book-did you? I made it perfectly clear that just as any child is innately endowed to acquire a language, there is no genetic basis for French. What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture. Some of us are different – why? I think this new empirical approach to looking at the brain basis of belief is going to be an interesting research agenda as it has implications about individual differences. I hope Harris and colleagues continue this work.

I am more on your side than you realize. So relax. Enjoy life. There probably is no God.


Filed under Research

Why Are Rocks Pointy?

Pointy rocks at Garden of Gods - mind your bum! (photo Ryan Schwartz)Anyone with a young child in the back of the car on a long journey will be familiar with the incessant questions that they can ask. Sometimes it may just be, “Are we there yet?” but for many, a long road trip can be an ideal opportunity for intellectual torture. My youngest could grind you down into submission after a couple of minutes.. “Why are trees green and not blue? How heavy are clouds and why do they float if they weigh something?” On and on and on and on….after a while you give up the will… “BECAUSE THAT’S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE!!!!”

Don’t get me wrong. After all, I am a scientist who studies children but it is quite clear that children seemed compelled to ask questions and find solutions. Sometimes it can get exasperating. “Because that’s just the way they are” is not a satisfactory answer and if you get suckered into starting to give a causal chain of reasoning such as, “Well, trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to convert sunlight into energy,” well you know what happens next… On and on and on and on

When we don’t give them answers, children generate their own explanations and from their perspective, everything is the way it is for some purpose. Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them. Trees have leaves to provide shade. This is called teleology – giving a functional reason for things that just happen to be the way they are for non-purposeful reasons. In the natural world there are all manner of things that appear complex and designed for a purpose. But that’s not the way the natural world works. It has no purpose and that’s one reason people find it so difficult to understand evolution through natural selection. Adopting the teleological stance that things have been designed purposefully is the intuitive way to think about the world and that’s one reason why children may be so inclined to creationist stories. Most religions (I don’t know if all) have some creationist account about origins usually in the form of God.

This is the point that my colleague Deb Kelemen at Boston University has made in her research. In fact, she calls it “promiscuous teleology” to reflect the pervasive nature of this way of thinking. You might think that once children are provided with non-teleological explanations than education can eradicate these naïve notions. However, in a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal “Cognition” she reports how science-educated adults can revert back to giving teleological explanations when forced to answer questions under time pressure. Is this simply the easiest answer to give? It may well be but my hunch that I give in my book is that we never truly abandon childhood ways of interpreting the world and that we have to work to ignore them. And that takes effort which is why putting someone in the spotlight can get them to think like a child again.

BTW I am also blogging over at t5m. So drop over there if you have a spare moment.


Filed under Research

Why We Have Spiderman but no Spiderwoman

I just got back from a holiday in Tuscany with my girls that was highly enjoyable despite spending the two weeks fighting off the various insects and bugs that are the norm for such climates. At the moment, this part of Italy is experiencing an exceptional heatwave and I wonder whether these high temperatures have stimulated the excessive entomological activity around our villa. The mosquitoes were fairly vicious but once again it was the spiders that seemed to generate the most anxiety.

What is it with spiders and females?  I mean they rarely bite and are totally harmless in the UK. Why do they invoke such uncontrollable terror? On my return, I read of a study just published by Dr. David Rakison of Carnegie Mellon in the journal of Evolution and Behavior where he reports that male and female infants respond differently to the paired presentations of pictures of spiders with either smiling or fearful faces. I haven’t had time to review the details of the study as it appears to still be “in press” which means that it has passed the review process by experts and just awaits publication.




Anyway, from what I can gather from the article in the Daily Mail (reader beware!), Rakison conducted a visual looking time study with infants showing them first a picture of a fearful face with a spider – I can’t imagine that he would have used the one shown here that was used in the Daily Mail article to illustrate the piece! After this initial pairing the babies were shown two further images – a spider next to a happy face and a flower alongside a scared face. Apparently, female 11-month-olds looked longer when they were shown the combination of a spider picture and a smiling face suggesting that they treated this pairing as an anomaly – something wasn’t right. In contrast, 11-month-old male infants couldn’t care less. 

This is a neat little finding and if it holds up will support the common sense view that females are indeed more scared of spiders – another example of  built-in dispositions that I keep going on about. For example, learning or indoctrination does not explain why people have snake phobias where there are no snakes (Ireland & New Zealand).

Of course I take the argument further by saying that the same dispositions operate with thoughts and beliefs. It can’t be learning and indoctrination when these things are appearing so early in development. Rather, all of us carry around in our genes a legacy of encounters that shaped the way we behave and think about the world.


Filed under In the News, Research

Things Are Not Always As They Seem

Watch the following clip CAREFULLY and then decide what you think you heard first time round.

The phenomenon known as the McGurk effect demonstrates how the brain can take differing visual and auditory signals and generate a new phenomenological experience. Richard Wiseman wasn’t so sure it worked and I think it depends on whether you are familiar with the English accent – not that  I have one anyway.

Still I’d be really interested in your comments. Tell me also which country you live in and whether you are bi-lingual. These may turn out to be important factors.


Filed under Research