Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pattern Recognition and the Human Brain

Our minds are programmed to detect patterns.  Sometimes this part of the brain goes haywire.

The anti-vaxxers are at it again.  The doctor who came up with the idea that vaccines cause autism has had his license revoked and his "paper" was withdrawn from publication.   But they are still at it, convinced that since their kid showed signs of autism at around the same age they got their first vaccines, there must be a connection.  Confusing correlation with causation.

Vaccines are given at about the age when the first signs of autism become apparent.   There is correlation, but not causation.

And this is sad, too.  I remember growing up, there was one girl in our class who had those leg braces from Polio.   She was like the last person on Earth to have the disease.   Well, she was, until now.  A debilitating disease, conquered in the 1950's, coming back today.  It is sad.

What causes people to believe shit like these crazy vaccine theories?   Well, in part, I think it is a part of the human brain run amok.   People look for patterns that aren't there, and they find them anyway, and like a virus, they infect other people's brains - and thanks to the Internet, it is a lot easier to do this.  

And it is an odd thing, too.   It seems that most of these conspiracy theories are designed to tear down our Western civilization.   Everything from the miracle of modern vaccines to the moon landing, to 911, was faked - and the real culprits are a shadowy group of malefactors.   So why bother saving Western culture?  Hello Sharia law!  Bring on the Caliphate!  We clearly don't deserve to live!

What got me started on this was someone posted a picture online of their wife, holding a cigarette.  In the flash of the camera, the smoke from the cigarette forms swirls, and the author swears he sees the ghost of a horseman in the photo.  "What do you think?" he says.

What I think is that the human mind is programmed to look for patterns, even when there are none.  And one of those patterns we are especially programmed to look for is human faces.   So we see "faces" on Mars, or in "ghost pictures" (which has created a whole industry of "ghost hunters") and we see Jesus' face in a taco or a cheese sandwich - because our minds are predisposed to look for faces.

At least most of us are.  It is a survival instinct.   Oddly enough, some folks have a rare condition where the part of the brain that does facial recognition is broken or absent.   They literally cannot recognize faces of people whether they met them only a few moments before or knew them their whole lives.  There is a whole part of the brain devoted to facial recognition - and when it doesn't work, well, it is hard on the human.

The above photo is from A Beautiful Mind about the mathematician John Nash, another one of those troubled geniuses like Alan Turning, who was not appreciated in his own era, and of course, a little crazy.  Mathematics requires a lot of pattern recognition.   Solving mathematical problems requires that the brain be especially trained to seek out patterns where no one else sees them.   Nash had a finely tuned sense of pattern recognition, but he went off the rails at times, finding patterns (and conspiracy theories) where there were none.

And you see the same thing with conspiracy theorists.  These are not stupid people, but often very smart ones.  The problem is, one part of their brain - the part that seeks out patterns - has run amok, most likely out of sheer boredom.   These are usually people who are underachievers - people with a lot of smarts and a lot of time on their hands.   Not being sufficiently challenged in life, work, or school, their brains go looking for trouble and usually find it.

What's the harm in it?  Well, your kid getting polio for one.  That and making a lot of  other horrible decision in life - decisions that will affect you negatively.   If you buy into all these financial conspiracy theories, well, you'll likely end up buying gold and canned goods and ammo on the off chance that Armageddon will happen soon - instead of funding your retirement.  Or maybe you will just go "all in" and kill yourself and your kids, thinking that the end times are coming (But aha!  Jesus doesn't let suicides into heaven, so you're screwed!).

On the mild side, conspiracy theories will just mark you as a loser and an unpleasant person to be around.  If you start boring people about the trilateral commission and the Illuminati, people will edge away from you.   And in no time, you will be a loner conspiracy theorist and before long, you are living in a cabin and making pipe bombs and wondering how you got to this point.

As I noted before, you have to work at mental hygiene and one sure way to improve your own mental health is to just say "no" to conspiracy theories.  John Nash was able to do this, and walk away from the nonsense that was taking over his life.

If there is a conspiracy, there is likely one in the way these are being spread.   Again, as I noted above, nearly every conspiracy theory out there is predicated on some basic principles - (1) There is a secret group of people controlling everything and taking away all "your" money, (2) Every accomplishment of Western Civilization is a fraud, including your liberty and freedom, and (3)  The United States is behind all these nefarious machinations and is a bad evil corrupt government that should be abolished.

Now, think about this rationally for a minute.   While we do have our flaws and our freedoms are not absolute, life in the United States is some of the best living on the planet.   Oh sure, Sweden has a better welfare system.  But it also has 70% tax rates.   All in all, we do pretty good here - and have accomplished amazing things, in terms of technology and wealth.  And yes, we landed on the moon.  And invented the telephone and the electric light and a host of other things.   We are a pretty good country - particularly compared to most others.

Now think of who would benefit from getting Americans to think their system was pretty crummy, corrupt, venal, and evil?    It ain't hard to understand - anyone who competes with the US.  Which is why Russian troll farms (among others) spread this sort of nonsense.

And speaking of conspiracies, these same folks who will look for imagined flaws in our society are the first to decry the "myth" of any communist conspiracy in the past.   But the realities of the cold war have shown us otherwise - all the major players on the world stage spread disinformation.  And yea, we do it, too.  We've been able to change governments, such as in Nicaragua, just by getting leaders to panic and think they are about to be overthrown.  Before you buy into a conspiracy theory, think about who benefits from it.  That alone might tell you who is really behind it, other than the guy selling you the book.

And then there are the various Islamic terrorist groups, whose stated goal is to take over the world.   We are told time and time again that this is not a conspiracy, even though they proudly put up websites that set forth, in explicit detail, what it is they are setting out to do.

No, there is no Islamic conspiracy.  There was no Communist conspiracy.   But the moon landing?  Fake, fake, fake, fake!

You see how ridiculous this is - and how it plays into the hands of our opponents.  Why are people so willing to believe that the United States is always a bad actor in any scenario, and that other countries are always innocent?  It is an odd pattern - that people will run-down their own country, which has given them so much, and root for a country that would take away everything they have, if it had a chance.

Now before you start, I am not saying there is some evil conspiracy to undermine the United States, only that people who dislike us or who are opposed to us, will use such conspiracy nonsense to run us down, when they can.  The first step to destroying any country or civilization is to get their own citizens to believe it isn't worth saving.   This was what brought down Rome.

Maybe that explains who spreads these theories.  But why do other people believe in such conspiracy theories?   Why does a bored housewife suddenly decide that  her children don't need vaccinations or some basement stoner decide that aliens are being held hostage in Area 51?

Again, we have smart minds being underutilized.   The bored suburban housewife is arguably more dangerous than any terrorist Al Qaeda can set forth.   They will start up committees and send out petitions if you so much as fart in church.   I've seen this firsthand - busybody syndrome.   Smart people with not enough to do.  They are very, very dangerous.

And ditto for the stoner.   Smart kids whose minds are numbed by marijuana.  They always end up "starting something" with neighbors, co-workers, bosses, girlfriends, or parents.   And of course, they are on the verge of solving all the world's great conspiracies - except the one that keeps them from getting a job, of course.

I mentioned before how my stoner brother got caught up in this "Alien" nonsense when he was a teenaged stoner.  He read a book, smoked a lot of pot, and was convinced that aliens built the pyramids.   Any evidence to the contrary was deemed "forged" or just dismissed out of hand.   That is how pattern recognition works - you look for the pattern and disregard contrary data.  And while he was able to see this complex patter of conspiracy, he could not see that his belief in aliens and his difficulties in getting and keeping a job (or a spouse), were in fact, related.

What is odd to me, is that while people will look for complicated conspiracies that have far-out connections and bizarre links, but then ignore the simple patterns in their own lives.   Again, this may be the pattern recognition part of the brain run amok, and perhaps marijuana (and paranoia) feed into this form of mental illness.

So the conspiracy buff thinks the government is bugging his toilet, but doesn't see that the "special offer!" from the Cable company is a ripoff.   No, in fact he likes that special offer!  He is getting a good deal!  His only complaint about the cable company is that they keep watching him through his televsion.  He really wishes they would stop doing that.

The real conspiracy to pluck dollars from your wallet is not tied up with the Federal Reserve, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, banking cartels, or any of that conspiracy theory bullshit nonsense.  The real conspiracy is the one right in front of your face - the blaring ads touting "good deals!" with fine print, selling you a ton of junk you really don't need but decide you have to have and once you decide that, not only do they not have to take your money away, you give it to them willingly with your blubbering thanks.

The mind is a great pattern recognition machine - designed to seek out and recognize remarkably complex patterns from what appear to be random bits of data.   Sadly, it seems that many folks find illusory patterns in these random bits, and disregard as "too obvious" the bold patterns that are readily apparent in their everyday lives.

And maybe this is why a lot of really smart people end up not doing well financially, if not ending up mentally ill.   We decry a lot of businessmen and entrepreneurs of the world who make millions if not billions of dollars, even though they are not very smart or sophisticated people.  How do those dummies succeed where we fail?

Simple:  They are not so smart that they get distracted by illusory patterns.  By seeing less and focusing more, they can keep their eyes on the real data - profits and losses - and not be distracted by noise and smoke.

Sometimes being a genius can be a distinct disadvantage!