An Interview with Jim Davies

The author of Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Makes Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe talks about the inner workings of the mind.


Cognitive scientist Jim Davies uses evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to present a unified theory of compellingness. That is, what holds our attention, why we love and hate, and how we evolved to believe in religion.

I was thrilled when I heard about Riveted. I thought you had decoded art and that reading your book would help me write better fiction. Indeed, there are many great tips for writers. In addition to a better understanding of what type of art we’re drawn to, you’ve offered a comprehensive picture of psychological biases and a devastating critique of religion. What do these things have in common, and why did you decide to put them in the same book?

I’ve always been interested in the arts as an amateur. I’ve dabbled in cartooning, painting, dance, fiction writing, and I have substantial experience in theater. As I learned in these areas, I found that there was a lot of folk wisdom about how certain artistic choices would affect audience response. For example, I learned in a film class that putting a blue color in the background makes the background look farther away.

As I was being formally trained as a scientist, I started to wonder if science could shed light on how and why art worked. But I had to put this interest on hold until I was a professor. When I finally started looking into the scientific literature, I found that in the last 20 years or so there has been a great flourishing of work in this area, and I thought about writing a book about it.

But I’ve also always had a great interest in religion: Why does it have the diversity it does? Why does every culture seem to have it? Why do people adhere to it so strongly? When I started looking into the cognitive science of religion, I found that many of the things that attract people to religion are the same things that attract them to art. Indeed, today we often read old religious stories (such as the Greek myths) as fiction. Once I had the idea that religion and art might work on the same principles, I thought that perhaps I could write a book about the underlying psychological principles that make everything interesting. Three years later, I had Riveted.

You argue people love discovering patterns and suggest that we’re hardwired to detect patterns which are not there. But doesn’t the universe run on patterns to some extent? Are there any studies that have identified people who excel at detecting patterns that are there?

It’s helpful to think of our pattern-detection abilities as a “gain” on a microphone or a camera. When you turn up the gain, you get more information — you can see shapes that are not there or hear sounds that you wouldn’t normally. But this comes with a cost: the picking up of noise that does not reflect anything in the real world. I’m suggesting that our dopamine levels are a rough estimate of our pattern-detection gain. So those with higher dopamine levels are more likely to see patterns that are there, and they are also more likely to think they see patterns that are not there.

One study had people looking at degraded images of faces. That is, pictures of faces with so much noise in the image that it’s tough to make out whether there is a face there at all. Raising people’s dopamine levels with a drug effectively turned up the gain on pattern detection, in that they successfully detected more real faces, but also had more “false positives.” They thought they saw faces in pictures that were only noise.

There is an uplifting line in your book about how understanding negative or traumatic events has been shown to reduce the power of those traumas over victims. If you were a therapist, how would you design a session to achieve this?

I am not a therapist, and I’m not trained in the craft and science of it, so my advice is only a suggestion for further research, not medical advice! That said, I’ll give some suggestions based on my understanding of what’s happening in the mind when we explain things.

Your mind wants to understand things and can sometimes mull over an event over and over, trying to make sense of it. If the event is emotional, this means that the emotion, too, might be felt over and over again. This can be good, as in the case of reminiscing about snorkeling, or can be bad, if you can’t stop thinking about that time you got mugged. The reason your mind won’t let it go is because it does not understand it.

So when you generate an explanation for why you feel the way you do, it allows your mind to put it to rest. Just as you stop thinking so much about a mystery once it’s solved, if you are given or come up with an explanation, you can forget about the experience. I suspect that part of why talking about traumatic events in therapy helps deal with them is because coming up with an understanding allows your mind to leave them behind. So in a session, talking about why the event had the emotional power it did might help.

Another interesting finding is that playing video games right after a traumatic event inhibits your memory of that event. When you experience something, you put it in short-term memory and it gradually gets transferred to long-term memory. When you play a visually powerful video game, it crowds the short-term memory, crowding the other memories of the traumatic event. I actually use this technique myself. When something bad happens, I immediately play video games for about an hour — certainly before I go to sleep, when many long-term memories are formed. The idea is that if you remember the event poorly, you will not be as bothered by it.

You write that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be more empathetic and less selfish. Can you explain?

One of the great things about the arts is that it allows us to walk a bit in someone else’s shoes for a while. Lots of art forms can do this, but written fiction is special because the art form makes it very easy to get into someone’s head. For example, there are some good movies based on Stephen King novels, but reading King is a very different experience because he’s a very psychological writer. I recall a scene in The Shining where King writes several pages of inner thought before the character does anything. This can only be done in film rather clumsily with voice-overs or some other technique that can take us out of the reality of the film.

Being privy to another’s thoughts is key to empathy. Reading a lot of fiction provides empathy’s fuel. Many books contain text written in the points of view of several characters. I recently read a book called Catcher’s Keeper that was written from the point of view of three fully fleshed-out characters — the novel A Game of Thrones has even more.

Steven Pinker, in his excellent book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that the invention of fictional literature, the education necessary for people to appreciate it, and the technology to distribute it were important factors in the decline of violence in our world.

The better you understand people, the less you want to kill them.

In the general culture there are often discussions about left-brain and right-brain people. That is to say, left-brain oriented people are thought to be more rational, while right-brain oriented people are thought to be more creative. Your explanation reveals this as an oversimplification. Living as a right-brain person sounds blissful, but from your description, it would be impossible to function. Can you explain?

It’s difficult to talk about the hemisphere differences with a lot of certainty. It appears that the left brain is more specialized for step-by-step thinking and focus, and the right brain is more geared to holistic thinking and association. Jill Bolte Taylor (I recommend her TED talk) describes how great it felt to have a stroke in her left brain because it took out the constant inner chatter that people meditate for years to get rid of. She felt comforted and one with the universe. At the same time, she could not speak [or] understand words or numbers, and had great difficulty calling for help.

What’s confusing about this is that many of these hemisphere differences also appear to be differences between the new (frontal) and old (back) brains. That is, the frontal areas also appear to be more focused on step-by-step thinking, and the back of the brain is more holistic and modular. I hope that future research will help sort this all out, but as they say, if you can think of 10 ways the brain might do something, it does all 20.

You cite evidence and argue that spiritual beliefs are born of our neurological tendencies to view ourselves as the center of the universe. Further, you trace organized religions back to charismatic leaders with schizotypal disorder and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. These are provocative arguments! Did you worry about backlash?

I have not gotten any bad backlash, but it still might be coming. These arguments are not as devastating to religion as many atheists would believe, though. For example, just because someone has a mental illness does not mean that they don’t have religious insight. A religious person might suggest that the illness is the means the gods use to transmit the revelation, in the same way that they might think the gods gave us eyes so we could see each other, ocelots, and the sun.

For many, religion and spirituality serve important functions in their lives. Personally, spirituality is my source of calm and hope, self-understanding, and self-improvement. Organized religion is my link to the origins of literature, high culture, art history, community, and discipline. If I were to live without spirituality and religion, how would I recreate those positive aspects?

There is a movement by Alain de Botton to basically do this — to replace what’s good about religion with a secular, humanistic, arts-based program. We’ve touched on a bit of this earlier — literature can help people be more compassionate. One problem is that not enough people are trying to do it to recreate the community aspect. We can have book clubs and be a part of volunteer organizations and so on, but these tend to come and go in our lifetimes.

Religious gatherings, on the other hand, repeat over a very long time. Some people go to church with the same other people for decades. (I am guessing about this; I have not seen any data on it.) I’m not a churchgoer, and I find it very difficult to replicate the social bonding and community that you can easily get from a church. The problem is that religion very possibly has evolved to keep societies together, and trying to get the same results with something else might be very difficult — rather like trying to get people to eat something that provides the nutritional value of fat, but doesn’t taste like it.

You write that people don’t just want causes, they want reasons. This is to say, we have difficulty accepting the randomness of life, so we create narratives. So when I say, “I’m a hard worker because I was born poor,” I know this is just a story, but it sounds (and feels) better than the alternative. Can we be completely rational and still find meaning?

Some things have “reasons” and “meaning,” and others do not. Attributing meaning to something that does not have meaning is being irrational (or is at least working with bad information). Although it feels relatively benign to tell yourself that you work hard because you were poor, there is a dark side to just making up explanations for things.

In this case, you might assume that people born rich don’t work hard. You might be harsher to poor people who don’t live up to your expectations. At the extreme end are the people who say that victims of AIDS or tsunamis are being punished for whatever sins against the universe they must have committed. When you throw out rationality, anything goes.

Making up reasons should always be done with care, compassion, and awareness that you might not be rational when you do it.

There’s a chapter on psychological biases in your book. You trace them to survival and to our social origins. But these biases are quite dangerous. For instance, you found that jurors will create a story in their heads about the defendant’s guilt or innocence (before seeing any evidence) and then cherry-pick the evidence to retrospectively support their initial belief. Do you think we could train our minds not to do this?

I have not seen any science on this (though there might be some), but my impression would be that this would be very, very tough. [In] the case [of] the jurors, I would recommend practicing being less confident in your initial impressions, and to force yourself to create several conflicting narratives and then placing bits of evidence with each one so that evidence can be weighed.

The problem is that you often get a strong intuitive impression of the right answer and then start looking at the evidence differently without even knowing it. I actually wrestled with this problem in my own book because I was trying to make a theory that covered such a huge range of phenomena. To counter my bias, I forced myself to not ignore studies that ran counter to my ideas and, indeed, I report on all of them in the book.

In chapter three, “The Thrill of Discovering Patterns,” you make a strong case for why people with different world views should keep talking to one another. Please explain.

When we never talk to people who disagree with us, it is easier to think of them as in the out-group and to dehumanize them. We should remember that all people are complex, and that we don’t have to approve of all of the characteristics of a person to be his or her friend, let alone a conversation partner.

Is it really true that violent video games are good for us?

Yes, but it’s not clear that it’s the violence that is causing the effect. Studies show that a particular kind of game, the “first-person shooter,” is the best for improving hand-eye coordination, visual attention, and so on. One study even found that experience with computer games was the best predictor of how good surgeons were.

The first-person shooter is a game in which the point of view is the same as it would be if you were actually there. Compare this to a puzzle game such as Tetris, in which there is no character, or a third-person game (such as Tomb Raider) in which you can see your character on the screen. There is something about the games that use the first-person point of view that gives us benefits. It might just happen to be the case that these games are often violent. On the other hand, the act of “shooting” in these games might be crucial to the visual attention and coordination that makes them beneficial. With hope, future studies will work this out.

Here’s some hope for late bloomers: Why is a slower development in early childhood better for cognitive function in the long run?

There is evidence to suggest that when young children are very good at something very early on, it is a sign that they have more skills hard-coded in their brains, which comes with a trade-off in terms of learning. The kid who can do less as a child (barring a mental or brain disorder) can be more adept at learning. Thus, in the long run, the learning child will better adapt to his or her environment and be more competent. This idea, like many in my book, is speculative.

Dorothy Reno is a DC-based writer who’s been published by Red Tuque Books and is working on a collection of stories called The One that Got Away. She has a psych/neuroscience degree from Dalhousie University.

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