The brain craves order and explanation. The success of our species starts with an ability to generalize, imposing meaning on our environment by spotting patterns and foreseeing consequences. Our brain is, among other things, a system for understanding events by cataloguing them. That intellectual ability allowed our ancestors to reduce the threat-level of everyday life, and supplied an immense evolutionary advantage over less efficient creatures that are constantly and fearfully on high alert.
When our world proceeds logically, according to our calculations and expectations, we experience a certain level of peace and security. Life, including its dangers, seems more orderly. It is no exaggeration to say that civilization itself begins with this expansive world view, a quick intellectual analysis of our immediate habitat that allows us to feel confident and in control.
But our talent for pattern-spotting has its dangers. If we become fixated on a pre-existing model of what the world should look like, we are more likely to shape acts of apparent randomness into the picture we expect to see.
That's harmless enough when all we're doing is remaking a small assortment of stars into a common kitchen implement – look up there, it's the Big Dipper! – or finding an image that looks like Elvis or the Virgin Mary in the humblest minutiae of everyday life. But it can also cause us to seek, and to find, things that may not be there.
A test of the ability to categorize a complex world came this week when a lone man allegedly walked into a Canadian Forces recruiting centre in Toronto and stabbed two soldiers while yelling, "Allah told me to come here and kill people." Held in connection with the incident is 27-year-old Ayanle Hassan Ali.
Is this a case of terrorism? Or a random act of violence, possibly connected to mental illness?
Based on that constellation of selective facts, as processed in the current political environment, it's not a leap to jump right into assuming this was a terrorist act perpetrated by radical Islamism. There really is such a thing, and it really does carry out or inspire acts such as this. Even while much is unknown and the investigation is just getting under way, Canadians still feel a natural need to understand how this incident fits into a bigger picture – whether it be 2014's attacks on Canadian Forces personnel by people loosely identified with Islamist ideology or the threat posed by IS.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau certainly did his best to generalize a response from the particulars of this incident. "Canadians – and the @Canadian Forces – will not be intimidated by terror & hate," he tweeted shortly after the attack.
No matter how well-intended, there is something problematic in those words. The Prime Minister in effect elevated the status of the attack, placing it in the category of terrorist threats. At the end of a full investigation, maybe that will prove to be a correct analysis. But the PM's tweet assumed the conclusion that the attacker was part of a movement "intimidating" Canada through "terror." In the wrong hands, this is a kind of affirmation, and conveys the sense of grandeur that a deluded person might hope to obtain through an act of public violence. IS has adopted this same kind of linkage, extending accreditation to attacks not connected to it.
Yet all the details that have emerged about the alleged attack so far suggest it may have been carried out by a troubled individual whose ties to terror networks are remote or non-existent. Even calling him a "lone wolf" aggrandizes an act that could just as easily be described in terms of mental instability.
But to see an attack as an outburst of personal derangement, and not part of a bigger, logical pattern, is to frustrate the human urge for meaning. Because there are points of reference in this incident consistent with other Islamist plots, a quick-working human brain will readily identify this act with others already slotted into the category of terrorism. But to spot that pattern, you have to ignore some dots that don't quite connect. Ironically, this desire to generalize corresponds exactly with the goals of ISIS, which has an interest in sustaining the sense of permanent threat posed by the possibility of embedded or home-grown conspirators.
Conspiracy theories are the first resort of people whose generalizing judgments are off, who make false connections based on selective facts, distorted by an overriding ideology or personal biases. There were very real Soviet spies and threats in the Cold War era, but they were no justification for the fantasies of McCarthyism in the red-baiting 1950s, when the pattern-spotting imagination ran wild, seeing Reds everywhere.
But jumping to conclusions is what the human brain does. When we make that leap, it's all the more important that we don't just see what we want to see. An easy predetermined judgment mustn't cloud the harder, surer evidence of our eyes and ears. The trick is to remake our patterns to fit our facts, not the other way around.