Evolution Triggers the “Oh Shit!” Circuit

Jonah Lehrer discusses the new Gallup poll numbers on the (non)acceptance of evolutionary theory versus creationist beliefs in his New Yorker blog post “Why We Don’t Believe in Science.” He cites a study by Andrew Shtulman in Cognition that finds our cognitive hardware (our brains) are probably selected to have some “naive intuitions about the world” & reject more complex explanations (our brains like Occam’s razor?), even if the former are wrong & the latter are right.

An fMRI study by Kevin Dunbar & colleagues found that undergraduates without a physics background, in watching a recreation of an experiment of different size metal balls falling, rejected Galileo’s correct explanation (but counter to naive intuition) of the physics involved in favor of the incorrect Aristotelian view AND displayed what neuroscientists call the “oh shit!” circuit in the brain (actually, I cannot find the study Lehrer is referring to but find one in which non-physics students hold naive notions similar to medieval thinkers, while physics students interpret the results thru a Newtonian lens, to similar effect though). Physics students, on the other hand, agreed with the correct Galileo assessment but displayed activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or so-called “suppressing unwanted representations” circuit.

Though not addressed in Lehrer’s post, this is consistent with the by-product model for the evolution of religion promoted by Justin Barrett, Pascal Boyer, & others. They suggest that resolving real-time incongruencies in life with minimally counterintuitive concepts like spirits & supernatural powers requires less of an intuitive leap than more complicated but correct explanations–i.e., that religion didn’t evolve for an adaptive purpose but developed out of this naive intuition with secondary benefits.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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