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If You Believe in Conspiracy Theories, There’s Something Wrong With Your Brain

The good, the bad and the ugly things we learned about our bodies today

Do you believe there was a second gunman on the grassy knoll? Or that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams? How about the idea that the U.S. government is secretly run by Jews to maintain the New World Order? Do you frequently comment and post on Reddit’s r/conspiracy? If so, you might have mental issues. No, really.

In what will undoubtedly be seen as a conspiracy against people who are fervent believers in conspiracy theories, a new study from researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement and the University of Kent has linked conspiracy theorists with a mental disturbance called “illusory pattern perception.” This is defined as the mind’s ability to identify “a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” In other words, finding patterns where none exist.

In the study, scientists first asked participants to rate whether a series of coin tosses were random or part of a larger pattern. Then, they looked at whether being prompted to find a pattern in the tosses would skew the results. Last, the group subbed in abstract art for the coin tosses and asked the same question. Participants who found patterns in the tosses and abstract art, and were most easily influenced to find patterns when prompted, were the same people most likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Spooky!

Our brains are naturally inclined to find patterns — that’s precisely how we learn, especially from past mistakes. But in an era when we’re bombarded with massive amounts of information, disinformation, truths and untruths, it can be difficult to separate reality from chaos, especially when all that chaos occasionally seems to make sense. That is where conspiracies come from.

So if you watch a coin flip come up “heads” 50 times in a row, or if you think that the Deep State used the same crisis actors to stage Sandy Hook, the Las Vegas shooting, the Boston bombing and any other number of national tragedies, maybe it’s not a pattern. Maybe, just maybe, it’s your desperate brain trying to make sense of the chaos.

A few other things we learned about our bodies today: