I was a little surprised about some of the pushback to the Oh, No, Not the End of the World (Again) column.
Which made this column in New Scientist all the more delightful.
It starts with pattern seeking:
“Cognitively, there are several processes at work, starting with the fact that our brains are pattern-seeking belief engines. Consider this evolutionary thought experiment. You are a hominid on the plains of Africa 3 million years ago. You hear a rustle in the grass. Is it just the wind or is it a dangerous predator? If you assume it is a predator but it turns out that it is just the wind, you have made what is called a type I error in cognition, also known as a false positive, or believing something is real when it is not. You connected A, the rustle in the grass, to B, a dangerous predator, but no harm. On the other hand, if you assume that the rustle in the grass is just the wind but it turns out that it is a dangerous predator, you have made a type II error in cognition, also known as a false negative, or believing something is not real when it is. You failed to connect A to B, and in this case you’re lunch.
The problem is that assessing the difference between a type I and type II error is highly problematic in the split second that often determined the difference between life and death in our ancestral environments, so the default position is to assume that all patterns are real; in other words, assume that all rustles in the grass are predators. Thus, there was a natural selection for the cognitive process of assuming that all patterns are real.”
And it just builds on that:
“Apocalypse thinking is a form of pattern-seeking based on our cognitive percepts of time passing. We connect A to B to C to D causally because they are connected chronologically, and even though occasionally they form false patterns, in the natural world they are connected often enough that in our brains time and causality are inseparable.
Apocalyptic visions also help us make sense of an often seemingly senseless world. In the face of confusion and annihilation we need restitution and reassurance. We want to feel that no matter how chaotic, oppressive or evil the world is, all will be made right in the end. The apocalypse as history’s end is made acceptable with the belief that there will be a new beginning.”
And that’s my selective perception for the day (Take that, you pattern seekers!)
The end is always nigh in the human mind
New Scientist 07 June 2011