11. The brain seeks patterns
Words, numbers, sentences, maps, chronometers and daily routines;
The language of math allows us to predict things such as, for example, where two cars will meet given their speed and starting location, if other variables are constant;
The brain wants to complete patterns, like fi nally fi nishing a tax return or finally remembering someone’s name and where you met. We can feel its pleasure in making a correct connection;
Finding patterns helps with survival. When confronted with certain ambiguities, our hypersensitive “agency-detecting device” can be activated. For our early human ancestors, survival was probably enhanced by concluding that a strange formation off in the distance was a potential predator rather than a fallen log that only resembled it. Better to be safe and wrong than to be sorry and attacked.
We also seem to be predisposed to interpret ambiguous observations and events as evidence of beneficent agents. Religions, existential philosophies, and science provide maps for interpreting these ambiguities, thereby satisfying the deeply felt yearning to comprehend our place in the world and to fend off the usually disturbing idea that we live in a random universe.
Human minds also abhor chaos. Observe the effects of sensory deprivation. Subjects may be blindfolded, have their ears plugged. They may be placed in water at body temperature or have their arms and hands encased in cardboard. After a while, as they seek stimuli from which to create order; their minds begin to disintegrate. Patterns are perceived where none, in fact, exist. Without external sensation, the brain either attempts to make sense out of its own activity or amplifies minute sensation into unreal but stabilizing patterns. A CIA training manual describes the following observations in people who have been deprived of social input:
“The symptoms most commonly produced by solitary confi nement are superstition,intense love of any other living thing, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, hallucinations and delusions.”
Loneliness and the loss of control represent different forms of uncertainty, each of which tends to generate the drive to find patterns. In the first of three studies, Epley et al correlated self-reported loneliness (on a survey) with the tendency to imbue inanimate objects with anthropomorphic human intention. People who reported feeling lonely were more likely to attribute human-like intention to four technological gadgets including “Pillow Mate” (a torso-shaped pillow that can be programmed to give a hug). In a related study in the same article, another pool of subjects took a personality inventory that ostensibly predicted midlife loneliness or social connection. The subjects were then asked if they believed in ghosts, the Devil, miracles, and curses. Those in the more disconnected group reported stronger belief in supernatural agents.
2. The brain is predisposed to use coincidences to create or discover patterns;
3. The philosophicalbasisfor interpreting coincidences is provided by fundamental association cortex schemas;
4. Personally relevant coincidence interpretation is influenced by a person’s biases;
5. Hemispheric lateralization influences coincidence detection and interpretation — the right brain associates while the left brain inhibits;
6. Coincidences suggest the possibility that we can look where we cannot see.