The Untrustworthy Brain and the Religion of Science

September 16, 2022
Mona Shobani, PhD

The following excerpt is from the new book,
Proof of Spiritual Phenomena: A Neuroscientist’s Discovery of the Ineffable Mysteries of the Universe.

“You’re wondering if you’re on the right path.”

“Yes, you are. It had to happen this way for the next thing to come forward. I see the Hand of God. Fate.”

Oh, no. She said “God.” Barf. I was annoyed but kept listening.

“This is a karmic thing from a past life. God brought it forward to heal it.”

Past life?! Karma?? God?! again. That’s . . . those aren’t real, so. . . .

“The person associated with this situation is one of your soul mates, from your soul group.”

Hmm. . . .

I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t even believe in souls. The intuitive reader’s words were even kookier than the notion that she could predict my future.

I would say that neuroscientists are even more skeptical than typical scientists because we know how the brain works. Our brains are coincidence detectors, storytellers, and filters of reality. The brain does the best job it can by taking the information that it has and crafting a version of the present moment based on its past experiences and its predictions about the future. Can we trust the brain? I think it might be useful to explain some of the features of the brain that cause us to question its trustworthiness.

Your brain is a storyteller. I do not just mean that our brains can create fictional stories—which is a defining feature that sets humans apart from other animals—but also that the brain is always trying to make sense of all incoming sensory information. The thing is, though, that the stories it crafts are not always based in truth. This is exemplified by what we call the left hemisphere interpreter. The left hemisphere interpreter takes the incoming sensory information that it has, compares it to information from the past, and rationalizes the most likely explanation, or story, for what it is receiving. The best example to demonstrate this feature of the brain comes from experiments with split-brain patients. The two hemispheres of the brain are normally connected by a bundle of neurons called the corpus callosum and, for various reasons, some patients in the past have had the corpus callosum severed, disconnecting the two hemispheres and preventing communication between them.

When the two hemispheres are connected, the left hemisphere interpreter has access to all sensory information. This ability is lost in split-brain patients, so their right hemisphere only has access to information from the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere only has access to information from the right side of the body (because the neurons cross over from opposite sides of the body on their way to the brain). In a set of classic experiments (Gazzaniga 1970; Gazzaniga 2005), neuroscientists showed the power of the left hemisphere interpreter’s need to reason and explain what is going on in the environment. When an image was presented to the right visual field of a split-brain patient, the patient had no problem naming what they saw because language is contained in the left hemisphere, the same hemisphere that perceived the image (see figure 2.1 on page 12). But when an image was shown to the left visual field, since the right hemisphere does not have the capability to produce language and the hemispheres cannot communicate, the patient could not report out loud to the researcher what they had seen. However, when asked to draw what they had seen, then the patient was able to accurately draw what they viewed in the left visual field, revealing that the brain did, in fact, receive the information, but just could not communicate it verbally.

When the researchers asked the patient why they drew the ­picture—let’s say it was a glass of water—they reasoned that, “I must be thirsty,” unaware that their right hemisphere had actually seen an image of a glass of water in the experiment and that this was the actual reason why they drew it! The correct answer to the researcher’s question would have been, “I do not know,” but the interpreter’s job is to create a story and have an answer, so that is what it did. The researchers found that this effect extended to emotions as well, because when they showed the left visual field an emotional video clip or image that caused a negative mood in the patient and then asked how the patient felt, the patient would respond with “I feel kind of scared. I feel jumpy, I think maybe I don’t like this room, or maybe it’s you.” They felt the emotion but, again, could not report the real reason why they felt that way (the ­emotional video clip) because the left hemisphere did not have access to the information in the right hemisphere.

When you stop to think about these results, they are so fascinating! Even though these experiments were done with special patients, and our brains do usually have information from both hemispheres, we still typically have at least some missing information because our brains can’t possibly process everything. But brains do not like not having answers, so they create one however they can.

Our brains are also coincidence detectors and are built to find patterns, even when a pattern does not seemingly exist. This helps the brain make sense of what is going on in the environment and helps facilitate the storytelling. An example of this is when we see faces in clouds or toast, or when Aunt Mildred tells you that she always goes to the casino the day after it rains because that’s when she usually wins. This is called apophenia, and humans do it all the time. It is not always negative. In fact, people with higher intelligence tend to have better pattern detection abilities (Kurzweil 2013; Lick, Alter, and Freeman 2018), and there is no doubt this brain feature has helped the human species survive. A closely related phenomenon, called the Baader-Meinhof effect, also demonstrates this tendency and happens when you start noticing something that you just learned or heard about everywhere. It is typically believed that your pattern-detecting brain is responsible for the repeated perception of the thing, rather than the thing actually being more prevalent. The meaning and significance that one can attach to these coincidental events, such as Aunt Mildred’s gambling routine, are personal and thought to only be meaningful in one’s mind. Well, that’s the popular scientific belief, anyway.

The filtering of incoming sensory information is another of the brain’s features. Our brains can only process so much at once so as not to become overloaded with information, so our brains act as filters to limit the bombardment of information. One way it does this is with attention. In the now famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment (Simons and Chabris 1999), researchers exemplified this effect by asking participants in a study to count how many times a basketball was passed between members of one team in a video of two teams playing. While participants were focused on the task at hand, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the basketball game, nonchalantly. At the end of the task trial, researchers asked participants whether they had noticed anything besides the players, and most participants reported that they had not because they were so focused on the task! That is an example of how your brain filters out irrelevant information. This is called inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness. A version of this phenomenon that may be more familiar to you is the cocktail effect, by which you can attune your hearing by focusing your attention on a person speaking to you at a cocktail party while ignoring the rest of the party’s noise.

The brain also filters information through beliefs, tending to prioritize and favor information and evidence that support its existing beliefs. One example is confirmation bias: If you hold the belief that all people who drive hybrid cars are terrible drivers, you are more likely to notice and remember the incidents when a hybrid car driver cut you off than when a different car did. Humans also have a tendency to believe that after learning an outcome, they could have predicted it all along in something called hindsight bias, or the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon. 

One very profound example of the illusions of the mind comes from clinical cases of patients with dissociative identity disorder (DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Different personalities within one DID patient can exhibit physiological differences in visual acuity, levels of pain sensitivity, diabetic status, allergic reactions, and handedness. 

That’s a lot, so let’s review. Your brain uses a filtering process based on your past experiences, expectations, beliefs, desires, and fears to constantly look for patterns and coincidences in incoming sensory information to make sense of the world. If there are holes in the data, don’t worry about that—the brain will fill it in with whatever belief, past experience, or other thing that it has available. The big takeaway from getting a Ph.D. in neuroscience was that your brain is not to be fully trusted. This is especially true and exemplified well by implicit biases that require conscious cognitive effort to overcome, such as stereotypical assumptions about other groups of people.

On the other hand, the brain is also a very powerful machine that can actually change physiology, behavior, and performance on belief alone. This raises a very interesting question: Is it always in our best interest to doubt our brain’s trustworthiness?

Another takeaway assumption from the science you learn in graduate school is the concept that “meaning” is constructed in your brain and there is no actual meaning out in the world. The Universe behaves randomly, so everything is unrelated and meaningless. Depressing? Yup, but that’s what science says. That dream you had last night that came true exactly as you saw it? Coincidence. Or you remembered it wrong.

The Science Cult

By the end of the six years of graduate school, I had been completely indoctrinated into the religion of science, or as I like to call it: The Science Cult.

People would say things like:

“Is there a God?” Oh, please.

“Do humans have a soul?” Geez, get real.

“Everything happens for a reason.” Seriously, shut up.

Your brain wants you to believe that. Its job is to find coincidences, so of course everything seems related. Of course, it can seem like everything happens for a reason, because given enough time, you can create a nice story about why things happened the way they did that led to the outcome with which you’re now okay. I was truly insufferable and not in the least open minded about, really, anything. Ask any of my friends who now admit to editing the things they used to say around me for fear of judgment. But this is how scientific materialism trained me.

At one point I was an atheist, but eventually I became an agnostic because I just truly didn’t care whether there was a higher power. Although I didn’t care and didn’t see how there could be a higher power, I was also always ready to admit that we humans do not have all the answers, including whether there was a spiritual nature to the Universe. After going through rigorous scientific training, I also came to believe that we didn’t have the tools or methods to determine whether or not there was a higher power, and, since I didn’t care, never thought more of it.

In summary, ‘old me’ was anti-religious, didn’t understand spirituality, did not believe anything happened for a reason, and was pretty hostile and condescending toward people who did believe those things. She was interested in the forces of the Universe and wanted to know the answers to all its mysteries, but she was a devotee of science and believed that was the only way. By the end of graduate school, she brushed off any synchronistic or coincidental personal experiences as lies of her brain, even though prior to that she had sensed meaning behind the coincidences in life. She was pretty happy and self-satisfied with herself for a while . . . until everything lost all meaning.

Proof of Spiritual Phenomena by Mona Sobhani, Ph.D., © 2022 Park Street Press. 

Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com

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