Recently, droves of people have hurled themselves headfirst into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. While some of the more outlandish theories make for a fun read, many take them completely seriously, declaring that they see a sinister underbelly to everyday life.
The already booming anti-vax community has latched onto the new vaccines for COVID-19. They make spurious claims that the vaccine has been rushed, contains harmful substances, or can rewrite your genetic code. Despite being debunked by experts, these views still persist. Some conspiracy theorists cite the virus itself as a hoax, with some even claiming that it is caused by 5G – showing a shaky grasp of both biology and physics. These views have real-world consequences, resulting in arson attacks on 5G towers and assaults on workers. Belief in 5G conspiracies has even backfired on believers, with some wasting money on contraptions to block Wi-Fi from their own routers to “protect” themselves.
Somehow, these are not even the most fantastical conspiracy theories out there. Conspiracy theorists claim that the vapor trails behind airplanes are “chemtrails”, containing harmful substances being deliberately sprayed on us for some reason. Proponents of this idea have even mistaken normal airplanes for UFOs checking the chemtrails out. Some people even believe that the Vatican is covering up the existence of giants. So why, in a world already full of chaos, are people so enthusiastic about whipping up more? Neuroscientist Shannon Odell explains why in this video from Inverse.
“The human brain is wired to see patterns to help us survive,” Odell explains. “Sensing patterns can save your life. Pattern processing became increasingly sophisticated with expansion of the cerebral cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex and regions involved in image processing.” However, this survival mechanism can end up running wild. “As we evolved, the brain got so good at finding patterns that it sometimes sees a pattern in completely unconnected data.”
Odell goes on to examine why some people are more susceptible to these theories than others, saying that “People who believe in conspiracy theories have brains that are more prone to illusory pattern perception: aka finding connections when there are none.” The culprit behind this could be dopamine. “People with genetically higher levels of free dopamine are more likely to believe in one or more conspiracy theories.” After these beliefs take root, confirmation bias strengthens them.
The scary and uncertain times we live in could actually be driving the boom in conspiracy theories. “Feelings of powerlessness can compel a person to try and find order in chaos, and that often means finding patterns where there are none.” However, there is hope for those who turn to conspiracies to cope. “Empowering people by encouraging them to take action in their own personal lives can reduce feelings of helplessness, and in turn reduce the reliance on conspiracy theories.”