What makes coherence so important to us?"
When something is missing, it bothers us that things don't hang together.
Consider: "Give him." In any language, that is a bothersome
sentence. Something essential is missing, and it rings an alarm bell
in our brains. We go in search of an implied "what" and try
to guess what will make the words all hang together into a complete
We ask questions in search of satisfying incompletes, again hoping to
create some coherence. No other animal does such things. It even forms
the basis of many of our recreations such as jigsaw and crossword puzzles,
all those little eurekas along the way.
Guessing a hidden pattern fascinates us. It's part of our pleasure in
complex ritual or listening to Bach, to be able to guess what comes
next some of the time. It's boring when it is completely predictable,
however; it's the search for how things all hang together that is so
much fun. Of course, we make a lot of mistakes. Every other winter,
I get fooled into thinking that a radio has been left on, somewhere
in the house, and I go in search of it only to realize that it
was just the wind whistling around the house. My brain tried to make
coherence out of chaos by trying out familiar word patterns on it.
Astrology, too, seems to make lots of things "all hang together."
Often in science, we commit such initial errors but we are now fairly
systematic about discovering and discarding them. We go on to find much
better explanations for how things hang together. Finding coherence
is one of our great pleasures. It would be nice to know what predisposes
our brain to seek out hidden coherence.
For one thing, it might help illuminate the power of an idea
and with it, how fanaticism works.
Fundamentalist schemes that seem to make everything hang together can
easily override civilization's prohibitions against murder. Inferring
an enveloping coherence can create an "other" who is outside
the bounds of "us." Because it seems so whole, so right, it
may become okay to beat up on unbelievers say, fans of an opposing
football team, or of another religion.
For scientists and crossword fans, it's finding the coherence that is
important. Then we move on. But many people, especially in the generation
which follows its inventors, get trapped by a seemingly coherent worldview.
Things get set in concrete; the coherent framework provides comfort,
but it also creates dangerous us-and-them boundaries.
is a theoretical neurobiologist at the University of Washington and
author of How Brains Think.