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The Science of Superstition

By Gilbert Cruz/ Source: Time Magazine

Do you believe in god? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe you can tell when someone is staring at the back of your head?

Religious or not, Bruce Hood believes that this is all a result the way the brain is designed. In Supersense, he describes how adult superstitions and beliefs in a higher power all comes from our inherent need to find patterns and order in the world.

Hood talked to TIME about superstitions, shared beliefs and why most people would not want to wear Jeffrey Dahmer's cardigan.

Time Magazine: One of your main points is that religion is not completely to blame for our belief in the supernatural. So where does it come from? You talk about this idea that humans are hard-wired, almost from birth, to believe in the supernatural.

Bruce Hood: The brain, and the mind it creates, is designed to seek out patterns in the environment, to interpret those patterns in a meaningful way and to look for causal mechanisms that can explain those patterns. In general, that leads to natural models of the world, but it can also lead you to a supernatural view, which is simply any explanation that goes beyond what we currently understand as the natural boundaries.

And you employ a very broad definition of supernatural. It's not just ghosts and spirits.

Yeah, the whole point of the book was to try to open up the argument to the whole realm of beliefs, rather than just focusing on the paranormal or even the religious. Most people are familiar with the arguments in regards to religion. Interestingly enough, though, people who are paranormal believers don't regard themselves as believing in the supernatural, they just think it's natural phenomena that science hasn't yet recognized. I think that's an important distinction. People who think they're religious recognize that their beliefs do fall into the supernatural, but they recognize this phenomena as divine intervention, while paranormal believers think that science is simply lagging behind in explaining the inexplicable.(See pictures from the annual UFO congress).

What are some examples of things that people believe science will one day explain?

Telepathy, precognition, anything that involves the mind. Typically they will think that humans have this untapped potential for connecting with each other over large distances, which would violate the current laws of physics as we currently understand them. Of course, they always respond with, "Well, the current laws of physics are always changing, so how can you be so certain that these things aren't real?" Well, we can't prove these things don't exist, but then they never really lay themselves open for scientific investigation. That's why it's really problematic to talk about them as being real science.

So, to get to the title of your book, what is a supersense?

Supersense is this human inclination that there are additional dimensions and forces and energies operating in the world. And they're not necessarily notions of heaven and hell and angels, but they can be. What religions have done is they've taken these inclinations and given them a framework, given them a narrative which seems plausible to people. The paranormal brigade talk about abilities that seem to also resonate with this idea that the mind seems to be somehow independent of the body.

So, this supersense encompasses both religious supernatural beliefs and secular supernatural beliefs? The latter essentially sounds like superstition.

Just speak to any athlete or sport fan, and they have little rituals that they have to engage in just to make sure the game goes ok. They have to wear their lucky shirts or they have to eat chicken before every baseball match, things like that. There's a number of very famous ones — John McEnroe wouldn't step on a white line, David Beckham is notoriously superstitious, Tiger Woods has to wear red on a Sunday when he plays golf.

And, as you write, most people hold supernatural beliefs, even when they don't think they do. Atheists, for example.

What atheists are doing, is they are rejecting religion. They've got their sights set on that issue. But what they're failing to acknowledge is that there's a whole set, or a whole wide range of beliefs that are premised on the paranormal and the supernatural. The issue of religion is completely separate. It's almost a political issue, in terms of whether religions are good or bad.

Much of your book is about childhood development, and how these ideas about the world are formed earlier than most people think.

Myself and a number of colleagues around the word study infant development, the natural course of development before formal education has had the chance to step in. We're interested in to what extent is stuff built in, and to what extent culture and the environment play a role. What's been remarkable is how, over the past twenty years, our understanding has grown that babies have surprising capacities to interpret the world and make inferences about what they think is going on, in the physical world, about the nature of objects. They're doing all this kind of stuff and no one's telling them how to do it. It's untutored, it's spontaneous. And this leads them to make many assumptions. And sometimes those assumptions are misguided. For example, if you think that your teddy bear can come alive at night when you're not watching it, or if you think that it gets lonely or has feelings of remorse, than you would be misappropriating a psychological property to an inanimate object. So, that would be an example where a child makes a misconception.Those misconceptions can become the basis of adult supernatural beliefs.

Talk about this experiment that you did a few years back which demonstrated just how ingrained and knee jerk these beliefs can be.

I'm not going to take credit for that experiment. It was Paul Rozin who demonstrated it, I simply adapted for a large audience to make a dramatic point. At some point during the talk, I'll pull out a fountain pen and say, "This belonged to Albert Einstein," and people will coo and ask to hold it. People want to physically touch things. And then I'll pull out a tattered sweater and will say, "Here's a sweater from somebody famous. You might want to put it on." Of course, everyone's suspicious, but then you offer them fifty bucks and most people will put their hands up. And then I'll say, "Would you still wear this sweater if you knew it belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer?" And the majority of hands shoot down. It's usually a very rapid response accompanied by nervous giggling. And you ask people why did they do that and they'll say, "It just seems wrong," and then they'll come up with all these post-hoc explanations. "Well, maybe there was some physical issue with Jeffrey Dahmer, maybe he had some illness that could be contaminating," or "I don't want to be seen to be doing something that the rest of the group thinks is bad." There are these responses towards events which trigger all sort of very rapid behaviors that you can, after the event, justify with a level of reason. But it's already after the fact. You've already made a decision on an intuitive level.

So are you saying that this supersense is good, or bad?

I think it's good for the simple reason that it's still around today. It's obviously conferred some advantages. I think it's adaptive on the individual level in that, if you believe you can control uncontrollable situations, it makes them less stressful. So the role of personal ritual is very useful in dealing with situations where you feel threatened. But I also think that the supersense could operate at the social level. What I mean by that is that if everyone in a group buys into the possibility that there are some values that are sacred in a group, then this serves as a consensus that helps the group cohere. There have to be some things which no one member of the group, no individual, can own outright. It has to transcend the mundane, it has to be something that goes beyond the earthly level, it has to almost become profound. It can be a book, it can be a temple, it can be a rock, it can be a tree. Every kind of culture or group has this.

What should people walk away from this book thinking?

The takeaway message of the book is that, really, we should be cautious at ridiculing or diminishing other people's beliefs because we all entertain beliefs. Once we recognize that, we can be a little bit more understanding of where they come from. If you read this book, you'll certainly never be a bore at a dinner party. Everyone has experiences, and you're dealing with a lot of deep-seated convictions which are very difficult to get people to abandon. So in reading the book, you're going to discover a whole realm of thoughts that most people never even considered as being supernatural.

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