This is an idea discussed at length in many books and essays but here’s a quick rehash on how and why the brain believes what it does (from Science-Based Medicine):
The brain is a belief engine. It relies on two processes: patternicity and agenticity. It finds meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. It infuses patterns with meaning, and imagines intention and agency in inanimate objects and chance occurrences. We believe before we reason. Once beliefs are formed, we seek out confirmatory arguments and evidence to justify them. We ignore contrary evidence or make up rationalizations to explain it away. We do not like to admit we are wrong. We seldom change our minds.
Our thinking is what Morgan Levy has called “intelligently illogical.” If our ancestors assumed that the wind rustling the bushes was a lion and they ran away, that wasn’t a big problem. If there really was a lion and they didn’t run away, they were in trouble. Natural selection favors strategies that make many false causal assumptions in order to not miss the true ones that are essential to survival. Superstition and magical thinking are natural processes of a learning brain. People believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.
Basically, we’re hard-wired to see patterns even when they’re not there because it’s, for a lack of a better word, safer. This kind of thing happens to me when I’m jogging and I see something long, squiggly and snakelike in my path like a a bungy cord or a piece of hose. My brain perceives a snake and I jump out of the way before I have to really decide if it’s a snake or not. Way more often than not, it isn’t a snake but it seems that there’s nothing I can do to override my initial reaction to assume that all long, squiggly objects are snakes. Nonetheless, it’s probably a much safer reaction (particularly if we had venomous snakes here) to always assume it’s a snake and jump out of the way (although maybe not if I’m jumping into the path of something more dangerous) than to take the time to decide.
The brain also seeks out what are called agents–purpose behind patterns. A good example is the robot Keepon seen at right (which was never meant as a toy but was built to study childhood development–originally $30,000 a pop, a toy version will soon sell for around $40). Dancing to Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On”, sometimes his movements are so lifelike that it’s easy to mistake the movements of two yellow balls with googly eyes for movements controlled by a mind. It’s hard to believe there’s not a person in there. I even accidentally called it a ‘he’ instead of an ‘it’.