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Newsweek on why we’re superstitious

Newsweek on why we’re superstitious November 10, 2008

Last week’s Newsweek has a rather good article on the psychology of superstition: Why We Believe:

The studies are an outgrowth of research on religious faith, a (nearly) human universal, and are turning out to be useful for explaining fringe beliefs, too. The emerging consensus is that belief in the supernatural seems to arise from the same mental processes that underlie everyday reasoning and perception.

Here’s a flavour:

  • “In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization,” says psychology researcher Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol
  • Something as common as loneliness can draw us to the paranormal.
  • …we are programmed to impute vitality to even inanimate threats…
  • That we are suckers for weird beliefs reflects the fact that the brain systems that allow and even encourage them “evolved for other things,” says James Griffith, a psychiatrist and neurologist at George Washington University. A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, a region toward the top and rear of the brain, for instance, distinguishes where your body ends and the material world begins. Without it, you couldn’t navigate through a door frame. But other areas of the brain, including the thinking regions in the frontal lobes, sometimes send “turn off!” signals to this structure, such as when we are falling asleep or when we feel physical communion with another person (that’s a euphemism for sex).
  • “We see the Virgin Mary in a potato chip or Jesus on an underpass wall because we’re using our existing cognitive structures to make sense of an ambiguous or amorphous stimuli,” says psychologist Mark Reinecke
  • Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, felt her dead mother’s presence “with me in a very deep and profound way, emanating from a certain direction,” she says. “Maybe if you’re thinking very strongly about that person, your mind is creating the sense that he is there.”
  • When the mind was evolving, failing to make an association (snakes with rattles are to be avoided) could get you killed, while making a false association (dancing will make it rain) mostly just wasted time, Michael Shermer points out. “We are left with a legacy of false positives,” he says. “Hallucinations become ghosts or aliens; knocking noises in an empty house indicate spirits and poltergeists; shadows and lights in a tree become the Virgin Mary.”
  • “People view evil as something physical, even tangible, and able to infect the sweater” as easily as lice, Hood says. “The idea of spirits and souls appearing in this world becomes more plausible if we believe in general that the nonphysical can transfer over to the physical world. From there it’s only a small step to believing that a thunk in an empty house is a footstep.”
  • during human evolution, our ancestors developed what is called a hypersensitive agency-detection device, says Benson Saler, professor emeritus of anthropology at Brandeis University.
  • No matter how many times neuroscientists assert that the mind has no existence independent of the brain, “we still think of our essence as mental, and of our mind as being independent of body,” says Fordham’s Guthrie. “Once you’ve signed on to that, existence after death is really quite natural.”

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