Questionable Motives

March 22, 2010

Why do we believe in the supernatural? A neurological explanation…

Filed under: belief,brain,Neurology,Science,Skepticim — tildeb @ 10:42 am

Have you ever heard of Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device? Neither have I. So what is it?

According to Justin Barrett, under certain conditions, humans commonly interpret two-dimensional, moving
geometric shapes as having the properties of causality and animacy. In other words, our brains – and our neurological response to visual stimuli in particular – come wired to seek and assign agency. This is HADD… a description of a complex neurological preference to detect agency.

Neuroscientist Steve Novella explains:

Psychologists and neuroscientists in recent years have demonstrated that our brains are hardwired to distinguish things in our environment that are alive from those that are not alive. But “being alive” (from a psychological point of view) is not about biology, but agency – something that can act in the world, that has its own will and can cause things to happen. Sure, this is a property of living things, but that’s not how our brain sort things out. We can perceive agency in non-living things if they are acting as if they are agents.

Bruce Hood adds to our understanding:

We imbue agents with an essence – a unique living force, even while infants. Objects are just generic things, totally interchangeable. While agents have their own unique essence. Interestingly, children can come to view a favorite toy (a stuffed animal, for example) with the properties of an agent and will treat it like a living thing. This reinforces the notion that the distinction we make is not between living and non-living so much as agent vs object.

This biological tendency we have to assign agency where none may exist helps to explain why we seem so willing to believe in all kinds of supernatural agencies. Back to Doctor Steve:

HADD detects more than movement, it can detect a pattern in otherwise unrelated events, details that defy easy explanation, or consequences that seem out of proportion to the alleged causes. When HADD is triggered we tend to see a hidden agent working behind the scenes, making events unfold the way they do, and perhaps even deliberately hiding its own tracks.

So if we are aware that we are predisposed by our neurology to assign agency where none may exist, then what can we do to safeguard our perceptions from our imaginings? Novella is quite clear with advice on how we can accomplish this willful task:

Skepticism, in many ways, is a filter on HADD. First we have to recognize that our brains are not perfect perceivers and processors of information. There are specific and myriad ways in which the human brain is biased and flawed. Science and skepticism are methods for correcting or filtering out those biases. Skeptics asks themselves – is it really true. We see many patterns, but only some of those patterns represent underlying reality. We need a process to sort out which ones are real – that is science and skepticism.

1 Comment »

  1. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and
    wished to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
    In any case I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

    Comment by Ahmad — August 2, 2013 @ 1:48 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: