Superstitions are pattern matching mistakes made by our Brain

The Story of Monkeys, Bananas and the Ladder

In an experiment, five monkeys were locked up in a room that had a ladder and few bananas on top of it. When any monkey climbed up the ladder to get the bananas, water was poured on other monkeys.

Over a period of time, monkeys were able to relate that the pattern of one of them climbing the ladder was linked to the pattern of water being poured on others. So, to avoid water being poured on them, they had to stop the one climbing the ladder from doing so.

Hence, every time any of the monkey tried to go up the ladder, other monkeys would beat him up.

After some time, one of the monkeys in the room was replaced with a new one who knew nothing about the water being poured. He just tried to go up the ladder and other monkeys beat him up. After some time, another new monkey was introduced in the room replacing another old one from the original gang.

When the second new monkey tried to climb the ladder, all four including the first new monkey beat him up. Why? Because the first new monkey learnt it from others that the one who climbs the ladder has to be beaten up.

Over a period of time, all old monkeys were replaced with new ones. The new ones had never experienced the second pattern which was water being poured when one of them climbed the ladder. And yet, they were preventing any of them from climbing the ladder!! A superstition had developed among the monkeys. Why?

Because, if monkeys could talk, and if these monkeys had kids and if they asked their parents why one should not climb the ladder, the parents would have no answer!!

The monkey brains were simply detecting patterns, just like any other brain. The first five monkeys correctly identified the relation between the two patterns as cause and effect. Climbing the ladder was the cause pattern which resulted in the effect pattern of water being poured.

They passed on this knowledge to the new monkeys via an action that would prevent the undesirable effect – beat up the one who climbs the ladder. This is how knowledge is passed on through generations.

Superstitions – Actions without convincing reasons

The monkey experiment mentioned above may or may not have been conducted. But that is how superstitions are handed down over generations, even in humans. Remember, as a child, you might have asked this question to your mom many a times, “But why should we do it?”.

And the answer would be on the lines of “You should not question it”, “because that is how it should be done”, or at the most some unconvincing story. Generally it meant, our parents did not know the reason either. It was just passed down for generations. But that doesn’t mean your parents are superstitious. They are just following their instincts. How? Read on.

Brain as a pattern matching machine

Brain is a pattern matching machine. It continuously looks out for patterns and tries to associate them with each other. That is how evolution functions as well.

Take for instance the evolution of Red, Green and Blue color cones in the human eye. Why Red? Why Green? Why not some other color?

Red Fruit on a Green Background

Green was the predominant color around them when our ancestor apes lived on trees. Ripe Red fruits were their favorite snack as they were nutritious and sugary. So eyes evolved to make it easier to distinguish between a Red fruit from a Green background even from far away. That is the reason we are so sensitive to Red color, and hence that has been used in modern times to signal emergency like the Red Cross of medical stores and ambulances, the Red light in the traffic signal and so on.

So this pattern identification of Red means tasty fruit is what allowed the evolution of Color vision in our eyes. Similarly as animal brain evolved, they started identifying and relating different patterns. This acquired knowledge was passed down from parents to offspring so that the children do not have to relearn it again.

During mating season male animals fight and the winner gets the females. This “winner is best mate” pattern allows for passing down of the best genes and eliminate weaker genes. In the wild, staying strong means being free of hereditary diseases, being immune to microbial diseases and so on. So a straight fight decides the best mate.

Pattern Differentiation

There are two types of feedback patterns that develop in our brains. One is via positive feedback and the other is via negative feedback. Positive feedback is when some action of event results in something good. Negative feedback is when some action of event results in something bad.

What is Good and Bad? Good is that is beneficial. Bad is that is harmful. Harmful or beneficial to whom? Animals that live in small groups evolve to consider whatever that is harmful to self as bad, whatever that is useful to self as good. This includes animals like elephants, lions, etc.

On the other hand, animals that live in large groups like ants, bees, etc consider whatever is harmful to group as bad, and whatever is useful to group as good. Such species might as well be willing to sacrifice their individual life for the greater good of their colony.

So over a period of time, all living beings, not just animals, even plants, evolve a behavior that categorizes good and bad patterns and passes on this knowledge down generations. These are patterns essential for survival. There is no logical analysis done about these patterns, As long as it works, its accepted.

Then there are also general patterns that develop – like the observation that it gets dark everyday after the sun sets, that the arrival of dark clouds are followed by thunder, lightning and rains, and so on.

The Evolution of Superstitions

Superstitions arise when our brain links to patterns that are mere co-incidence. When brain tries to relate patterns that occur together but are in no way related to each other – a superstition develops. If a fruit falls when a crow lands on a tree, does it mean that the crow caused the fruit to fall?

Animals do not do logical deductions, that is not necessary for them. They just observe and follow patterns which is enough for their survival. Humans on the other hand have evolved brains that can think at a much more complicated level, and hence have the ability to question their patterns and retain only those that are meaningful.

Scientific Reasoning – The analysis of pattern truth factor

Animals generally spend their entire lives doing mostly only one thing – finding food. Because there is only so much nutrition and energy one can draw from raw food. Humans, by learning cooking and agriculture – found a much quicker way to get hold of their food.

It all started with that forest fire, after which the burnt food was found to be tastier and easy to digest. Then humans started settling down in one place and started agriculture – they grew those crops that gave them abundant food.

This gave humans ample time to spend on other things – activities other than seeking food. A super charged human brain due to availability of abundant food started growing more complex connections which allowed humans to think at higher and higher levels than other animals – intelligence evolved.

So this intelligence allowed us to develop scientific or rational thinking. Science is nothing but finding logical reasons that link patterns.

If two patterns are linked by evidence – it is science.

Otherwise their linking is superstition or pseudoscience.

But it is not that simple either. Why? Some times the patterns may be linked only under special conditions. So in that case, without those conditions it becomes a superstition, but under that condition it becomes a science.

Many a times we definitely see the pattern exists, but may not know the reason for that. Take the case of a snake waving its head in the direction of the pungi played by the snake charmer. So a human brain used to listening music, thinks that snake is also enjoying the music or is hypnotized by it. And there is no reason to deny this pattern, because it happens every time.

As science progressed we found that snakes have no ears like us – and cannot enjoy music like us – even though they can feel some low frequency vibrations through their skull. Snakes listen by feeling vibrations on the ground, not by sound through air like us. So a snake can hear you when you jump on the ground near it, but cannot hear you if you scream. And of course – it has eyes, so can see you.

So when a snake charmer is playing that instrument – the snake is in its defensive position – following its natural pattern matching skills and keeping an eye on the charmer and instrument. That is all. So in this case, the pattern exists, but the reasoning was wrong.

Take the case of Ptolemy thinking Sun goes around the Earth, and that Earth is at the center of the Universe. That is what you get from initial observations, right? You see all the Stars, planets, Sun, Moon going around the Earth in the night sky! He was right for the knowledge available in his times, and for the amount of reasoning people could do then. As Science evolves, old theories are rewritten or rejected, superstitions are either validated with reasoning or rejected as pseudoscience.

It may as well be true that some of those which we consider to be superstition today might be validated as science someday in the future!!

Types of Superstitions

As we saw earlier, not all superstitions are alike. There are different types of Superstitions.

Time bound superstitions

Some superstitions may have been valid in the past, but are not valid anymore today. Getting home before it is dark – is a classic example. In the past, before electricity and bulbs it was strongly advised to get back home before it is dark. The reason being, fear of being attacked by wild animals, predators, falling into a ditch because you cannot see it, and so on.

But in this modern era of 24×7 super lit urban areas and mega cities, the superstition that staying out after sunset is bad, does not hold anymore – at least not in urban areas.

Ancient texts may contain practices that were valid during those times. But that does not mean it is valid even today. This is one of the main reason why religion comes in conflict with science. Religions that rely on an ancient text with no scope for corrections end up with practices that are in direct contradiction with science.

Geography bound superstitions

Some superstitions may apply only to certain geographies. People living in or around deserts, or areas of water scarcity may not take regular bath – because that is a waste of precious water. They might develop a belief that regular daily bathing is bad – it wastes water. Now this belief becomes a superstition for people living on a river bank – where there is plenty of water available, and regular bathing keeps you clean.

Universal Superstitions

These are superstitions that worry the rationalists. We may not know how or why they originated, but know for sure that they are plain wrong universally – at all times and in all geographies. Superstitions like 13 being an unlucky number, a black cat across the road being unlucky are all examples of superstitions without any basis.

Superstitions as Patterns in Brain

Given the fact that all superstitions arise from association of unrelated patterns by our brain – it is a given fact that new superstitions will keep arising. There are the cases of urban legends, ghost stories, black magic – and also attempts to find rational reasoning behind them.

In modern society of intelligence humans guided by science and technology – our brain knows that for something to be accepted legitimately – it should be associated with an additional pattern – a reasoning pattern. So we see all kinds of articles and books and talks about “The Science behind…”. And this is not wrong as long as it is backed by genuine scientific facts. The only fear is retrofitting science into a superstition so that it can be given a legitimate scientific basis.

Given the fact that human brain evolves its pattern identifying ability which is influenced by a complex web of circumstances – the neighborhood, the upbringing, the education, the influence of parents, teachers, friends and the society as a whole – each of us have our own reasoning level of accepting or rejecting patterns – be it science of superstition.

After all, if I have to accept something as science or reject something as superstition – you have to present me a pattern that I can comprehend based on my existing patterns, based on what I already know as Truth. This is where education and knowledge of basic science comes into picture. You cannot explain quantum mechanics to a person who has no knowledge of basic physics – unless of course he or she takes whatever you say as Truth.

But that is another danger in our society – semi literates. There are many people who think whatever they find on Google is True!! There are many who think all social media forwards are True!! These are caused by the highest level of superstition that – something associated with high end technology is True. Even today, in non English speaking countries – there are many who believe that a person who speaks English is intelligent – just because he can speak a different language!

Increased Superstition due to Information Overload

In an era where scientific advancement is supposed to make us less superstitious – the opposite seems to be happening in many societies. The reason? Information overload. Our brains are flooded everyday with a huge amount of information – WhatsApp messages, Tweets, Youtube Videos, Blogs, Cable Television – in all directions. So our brain has very limited time to process and analyze the facts – to find meaning relations between patterns and this leads to an increase in superstitions.

This leads to the creation of a generation that knows facts – true, untrue, half baked truth – but spends very little time on reasoning. This is bad.

We need to self moderate ourselves to limit our exposure to this information overload so that our reasoning capacity does not diminish over time. Else we will end up as targets to propaganda machines. And that makes us no different from our superstitious ancestors. Use your brains instead of simply believing your eyes and ears.

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