Linden’s accidental religious narrative

Posted on August 22, 2007


I have just finished reading The Accidental Mind by David Linden, which is basically an introduction to what neuroscience has revealed about the brain over the last few decades. The book is just the sort of thing that anyone who is doing anything in the interdisciplinary study of cognition should read to make sure that they have at least a general idea of what another discipline in the area has achieved.

Apart from being an introduction, Linden’s book is also a sustained argument for a particular view of what is the cause of human religious beliefs (the two aims of the book do not fit together all that well). This is how he puts it in his diagram outlining the argument:

The always-on narrative creation system in the left cortex together with the nonnaturalistic experience of dreaming predisposes humans to acquire religious ideas, among them: God.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that our memory and perception are constructive – our brains quickly put together a coherent whole from only partial clues, be it stored in our neural pathways or transferred to our brain from our senses. What is constructed, in effect, is a narrative that in the best case truthfully reflects the relevant aspects of a current or past situation, making it possible for us to use that information to act effectively. Linden believes that this capacity for narrative construction is revealed in narrative dreaming. The thesis appears to be that what actually occurs is that the ‘raw material’ of dreams are ‘isolated vignettes or flashes of memory’ that are then seamlessly put together into narratives. Similarly, the narrative creation system is meant to join together what occurs in the waking state, papering over any discontinuities. In the process, religious ideas are sometimes formed “by building coherent narratives that bridge otherwise disparate concepts and entities.”

Obviously, the narrative creation system must have its limitations as it is perfectly possible to present people with videos of short disconnected frames that they will not be able to put together into a story – such videos supposedly being almost as disturbing to watch as those showing various grisly events. Also, it is also clear that what Linden presents is just an outline but it seems an interesting one. To apply the idea to superstition, it does appear that professional magicians often make use of the phenomenon of change blindness, which is linked to the constructive nature of perception, to make it appear as if they had done something which is not physically possible. Likewise, the constructive nature of memory does seem to lead people to reconstruct remembered magic shows as more impressive than they really were. The other side of this is apparent human disinclination to recognise coincidence in that we generally tend to seek some explanation for why certain events that we find significant should have co-occurred. The particular reason why this approach seems interesting to me is that it appears to come at much the same issues as the (partially derived from Skinner) idea that people look for patterns but does so in a way that is more directed. Mere looking for patterns seems too broad and does not clearly distinguish superstitions from false ideas in general. Narrative construction seems more promising here. Having said all that, I am only going on the basis of the very general concept suggested by Linden rather than on anything more thoroughly worked out.

As an additional remark, it is important to note that whatever story one wants to tell about superstitious beliefs it will be necessary to put together a neurological part of the story also and that this side is often very much missing in what has been done thus far, it seems to me.