Why our brains are hard-wired for belief

Why Our Brains are Hard-Wired for Belief.


After three million years of trial and error, of accidental and random mutation, the human brain has evolved to learn to fill in the gaps. If you do crosswords, or ‘join the dots’ puzzles, or jigsaws, you’ll already know what I mean.

For instance, is this a random collection of dots, or a Dalmatian?


And this? A rocky outcrop or a horse’s head?


And one more for luck…


Is this a face on Mars, constructed by Martians as a monumental testament to their doomed civilization when they realized their planet was dying, constructed on the surface so future space faring civilizations would know they had existed? Or a natural geologic formation?

Get the idea??

In the same way we fill in the visual gaps, we can just as easily fill in auditory gaps – think chicken-in-the-basket-style comedian Colin Crompton with his “ther*’* som***ing wro** wi** th** mi***ph*ne” routine.

And so it is with events that seem inexplicable – the things that go bump in the night, the rustle of a curtain, the snap of a twig in the forest…

We search for reasons why things that happen, happen… especially if there is no immediate or apparent cause. That’s why some people put things down to luck, or their guardian angel, or the gods, or evil spirits or… well, the list is endless.

Reacting to strange or unexpected events is part of the human survival strategy. Unusual sounds, sights, or events make us become alert. Those that take action are more likely to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation; those that ignore danger signals get eaten and don’t pass on their genes. Over millennia, these instincts have become hard wired into our brains. This is a hugely important part of the evolutionary process.

If a strange or unexpected noise is heard at the back of the cave, or in the starlit savannah – the mind searches for a rational explanation. But what if it can’t find one? There is a gap to be filled and where no rational explanation can be found, an irrational one can be provided by the imagination, hence the event gets confused with the supernatural, and this inevitably leads to belief in sprites, gods, monsters, invisible spirits, and so on.

If you have no knowledge of astronomy, unusual events such as the appearance of a comet, something that’s outside normal experience, cannot be explained in rational terms. Thus it must be sign from the gods, or an omen! If you have no knowledge of geology or geography, then a catastrophic event, especially one harmful or frightening, such as a flood or the eruption of a volcano, in the absence of any explanation, any explanation becomes valid. Are the gods angry? What have we done to deserve this?

Of course this belief system is a two way street. When the river floods every year and deposits fresh alluvium on the land that in turn provides nourishment for our crops, we can be thankful to whatever force has caused this, rather than fearful. Conversely, if the rains fail and there is a drought and our crops wither and die and our cattle perish, without a rudimentary knowledge of meteorology or climate, it is easy (and dare I say it, logical) to believe that forces beyond our understanding are responsible. What else are we to think?

This confusion over whether an omen is a good omen or a bad omen, and more important, what we have to do to appease the entity responsible for it, is decided by someone in the group who thinks he understands these things. His musings on the matter then serve to reinforce the irrational explanation and confer more authority on that individual – especially if he turns out to be right. This authority is then inevitably followed by the introduction of rituals that reinforce the erroneous belief even more. Thus is established a religion! The end result is that the priest, as he is henceforth known, is invested with even more power and authority, which is then passed down through generations and becomes fact, a triumph of the imagination over reality! Before very long, the priest cements his authority by dressing or adorning himself differently than the rest of the tribe. He is given special privileges because he is able to convince the rest of the tribe that he has an assumed special ability to understand or even converse with the gods, spirits, ancestors, whatever.

Thousands of years of ritualistic behaviour becomes hard-wired into the brain in exactly the same way as the need to plant crops at certain times of the year. In fact, the two often go hand in hand, again reinforcing the belief system, all presided over by the one in charge of the rituals. Easy enough to recognize in other groups, from stone-age tribes in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea – we are even amused by the spiritual antics of the Romans with their gods for this and that, or slightly less amused with the blood-letting and live human sacrifices of the Aztecs. But modern day beliefs are no more accurate.

To understand how the human brain has developed in this way, we could look at an example from nature. The baby spider, when it hatches from its egg, instinctively knows how to spin a web – this knowledge has been passed down through millions of years and billions of generations of spiders, so the ability to spin the web really is hard-wired in the spiders brain, even before its birth!

Human beings are also born with certain instincts and understandings, again hard-wired in the brain, and again the result of millions of years of learning. Even very young children understand that solid objects cannot merge together; they know for example that their pet dog is a living thing and not a collection of cogs and mechanical motors like their toys. They quickly begin to understand that water is wet, that fire is hot and their blanket is warm. They know these things and almost everything about their understanding of the world is logical and makes sense.

But what happens when children are confronted by something that doesn’t make sense. What about a story about a man who can walk on water or a snake that can talk?

Stories like these stand out from a child’s normal experience and understanding of the world by virtue of the story’s illogicality. Because the stories are told by people the child trusts, usually parents, teachers, or others in positions of authority, these illogical stories are even more likely to be added to the child’s collective understanding when they are presented as truth.

But, and here’s the clever part, because they are nonsensical, they stand out from other more reasonable tales of cabbages and kings. As a result, they are separated in the memory from any other kind of learning experiences. The child struggles inwardly with this new knowledge but accepts it as truth because it has come from someone the child trusts. Because the story doesn’t make sense, it is endowed with greater significance.

So after millions of years of the evolutionary learning process, the ability to absorb myths and legends have become hard-wired into our collective conscious.

Sometimes belief is heightened by a peak experience. For instance, if worship is combined with happy coincidence, even praise (all children love praise.) Intense, joyful experiences enhance the individual’s enjoyment of worship, stimulating the pleasure centres in the brain, compounding the experience, thus making the belief stronger. The technique is oh so simple once you understand it – it’s a very clever association of worship with pleasure, and it makes people want more of the same! Dopamine is such a powerful drug, it’s impossible to resist.

Just as with our stone-age ancestors, a solution to a puzzle provides relief. Where there is no rational explanation for why we must all die at the end of our lives, the irrational explanation as to why we must believe provides comfort. Thank God for God!

The modern happy-clappy Christian churches go out of their way to provide peripheral family events, guaranteed to make their congregations even happier and clappier! Often these events are designed especially to appeal to children, with their fun and games and summer camps where religious indoctrination is thinly disguised as fun. Not even Ronald MacDonald stoops to these depths to get the kids hooked for life. At least with Ronald you get a burger.

There is however another factor that comes into play. If humans dislike missing pieces, they love patterns. We like building in straight lines or in ways that are pleasing to the eye. To put it succinctly, we like symmetry. Which is why our ideas and suspicions about the supernatural become ordered – over the generations, religion has become codified and we have developed sets of rules, rites and rituals, which remind us of those beliefs.

It is this organization of belief that can lead to extremes of behaviour. Of course it can be for the good of the many, encouraging human beings to greater altruism and higher achievement. Right now, as you read this, there are thousands of Catholic priests and nuns, living and working in the most dangerous and appalling conditions imaginable, in the hellholes of the world, bringing hope to people who would otherwise have no hope.

On the other hand, organized belief can be pernicious, leading to pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts, religious wars, and holier than thou desires to fly passenger planes into skyscrapers. Either way, it seems we will be stuck with it for a while to come.

Sure, belief has been a useful tool in the human survival strategy, but higher education and a better understanding of science is fast eroding belief as an important constituent of the human psyche. No amount of belief makes something a fact unless it stands up to scientific test. There is no religious or supernatural belief that passes this test.

It is man who made god, not the other way round. And all because three million years ago something went bump in the night…


A pertinent point is that religious people are more likely to have a poorer understanding of the real world. People who believe in an all-powerful deity are also more likely to believe in the supernatural or that inanimate objects hold special power.

These individuals lack of understanding about the physical world means they apply their own rules and are more likely to believe in demons, spirits, ghosts, exorcism and the efficacy of Ouija boards. They also have a great fear of hypnotism, but that’s another story!!!

A new study, undertaken by Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen, from the University of Helsinki, compared religious people with those with autism because both struggle to understand the realities of the world.

258 people participated in the study. Initially, they were asked how much they agreed with the statement ‘there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God’ and also if they believed in paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and psychic visions. They were also tested on a range of other topics, including intuitive physics skills and an understanding of basic biology.

They found that people with strong religious beliefs tended to have an inadequate understanding of physical phenomenon, such as plate tectonics, meteorology, the solar system, the greater universe, and history – in particular, they were astonishingly ignorant of the history or the development of religion.

The more the participants believed in religious or other paranormal phenomena, the lower their intuitive scientific skills, mechanical and mental reasoning abilities, school grades in mathematics and physics, and knowledge of physical and biological science.

The results strongly suggest that religious people tend to base their beliefs on instinct, rather than analytical and critical thinking.

Significantly, a study in 2013 by researchers at the University of Rochester suggested that religious people tend to have a lower IQ. This study suggested that people with higher IQs had greater self-control and were able to do more for themselves and so did not need the buffers that religion provides.


Copyright Andrew Newton 2014. All rights reserved.