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SuperSense: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

SuperSense: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

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by Bruce M. Hood

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The majority of the world's population is religious or believes in supernatural phenomena. In the United States, nine out of every ten adults believe in God, and a recent Gallup poll found that about three out of four Americans believe in some form of telepathy, déjà vu, ghosts, or past lives. Where does such supernatural thinking come from? Are we


The majority of the world's population is religious or believes in supernatural phenomena. In the United States, nine out of every ten adults believe in God, and a recent Gallup poll found that about three out of four Americans believe in some form of telepathy, déjà vu, ghosts, or past lives. Where does such supernatural thinking come from? Are we indoctrinated by our parents, churches, and media, or do such beliefs originate somewhere else? In SuperSense, award-winning cognitive scientist Bruce M. Hood reveals the science behind our beliefs in the supernatural.

Superstitions are common. Many of us cross our fingers, knock on wood, step around black cats, and avoid walking under ladders. John McEnroe refused to step on the white lines of a tennis court between points. Wade Boggs insisted on eating a chicken dinner before every Boston Red Sox game. President Barack Obama played a game of basketball the morning of his victory in the Iowa primary and continued the tradition on every subsequent election day.

Supernatural thinking includes loftier beliefs as well, such as the sentimental value we place on photos of loved ones, wedding rings, and teddy bears. It also includes spiritual beliefs and the hope for an afterlife. But in this modern, scientific age, why do we hold on to these behaviors and beliefs?

It turns out that belief in things beyond what is rational or natural is common to humans and appears very early in childhood. In fact, according to Hood, this "super sense" is something we're born with to develop and is essential to the way we learn to understand the world. We couldn't live without it!

Our minds are designed from the very start to think there are unseen patterns, forces, and essences inhabiting the world, and it is unlikely that any effort to get rid of supernatural beliefs, or the superstitious behaviors that accompany them, will be successful. These common beliefs and sacred values are essential in binding us together as a society because they help us to see ourselves connected to each other at a deeper level.

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Chapter One

What Secret Do John McEnroe and David Beckham Share?

Weird stuff happens all the time. Some years ago, before we were married, Kim and I traveled to London. It was our first trip to the capital, and we decided to use the Underground. London's Underground train system transports more than three million passengers every single day, and so we were relieved to find two seats together inside one of the crowded carriages. As we settled down, I looked up to read the various advertisements, as one does to avoid direct eye contact with fellow passengers, but I noted that the young man seated opposite seemed vaguely familiar. I nudged Kim and said that the man looked remarkably like her brother, whom we last heard was traveling in South America. It had been years since we last saw him. Kim stared at the man, and at that instant the man looked up from the paper he was reading and returned the stare. For what seemed a very long time, the two held each other's gaze before the quizzical expression on the man's face turned to a smile and he said, "Kim?" Brother and sister could not believe their chance encounter.

Most of us have experienced something similar. At dinner parties, guests exchange stories about strange events and coincidences that have happened either to them or, more typically, to someone else they know. They talk about events that are peculiar or seem beyond reasonable explanation. They describe examples of knowing or sensing things either before they happen or over great distances of time and space. They talk of feeling energies or auras associated with people, places, and things that give them a creepy sensation. They talkabout ghosts and sensing the dead. It is precisely because these experiences are so weird that they are brought up in conversation. Pierre Le Loyer captured this notion well four hundred years ago in writing about spirits and the supernatural when he said: "It is the topic that people most readily discuss and on which they linger the longest because of the abundance of examples, the subject being fine and pleasing and the discussion the least tedious that can be found."1

Most of us have had these bizarre experiences. Have you ever run into a long-lost friend in the most unlikely place? How often have you thought of someone only to receive a phone call from that person out of the blue? Sometimes it seems as if thoughts are physical things that can leap from one mind to another. How often have two people puzzled and said, "I was just thinking the same thing!" Many of us feel that there is something strange going on. Humans appear synchronized at times, as if they were joined together by invisible bonds. Some of us get a sense that there are mysterious forces operating in the world, acting to connect us together, that cannot be explained away. How do we make sense of all these common experiences?

Many people believe that such occurrences are proof of the supernatural. Beliefs may turn out to be true or false, but supernatural beliefs are special. To be true, they would violate the natural laws that govern our world. Hence, they are supernatural. For example, I may believe that the British Secret Service murdered Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris. That belief may be true or false. Maybe they did and maybe they did not. It's not impossible. To be true, my belief would have to not violate any natural laws. All that would have been required was a very elaborate plan and cover-up. So it is possible that the British Secret Service murdered Princess Diana—but unlikely. However, if I believe that someone can communicate with the dead princess, then that would be a supernatural belief because it violates our natural understanding of how communication between two people works. They usually both have to be alive. As Michael Shermer says, "We can all talk to the dead. It's getting them to talk back that's the hard part."2

People can be fully aware that their beliefs are supernatural and yet they continue to believe. Why do people believe in things that go against natural laws? It cannot simply be ignorance.

The answer is evidence. The number-one reason given by people who believe in the supernatural is personal experience.3 Of course, other people influence what we think, but firsthand experience gives us a mighty powerful reason to believe. As they say, "Seeing is believing," and when it happens to you, it proves what you suspected all along.

For believers, examples of the supernatural are so plentiful and convincing that to simply ignore all the evidence is to bury our heads in the sand. But is there really such an abundance of examples of the supernatural? One major problem is that we are simply not good at estimating the likelihood of how often weird stuff happens. We tend to overestimate the likelihood of events that are very rare, such as being killed in a plane crash. At the same time, we underestimate the likelihood of events that are really quite common. For example, what is the likelihood of two strangers at a party sharing the same birthday? Let's say you're the sociable type and attend a party about once a week. Take a guess at how many people have to be at a party for two of them to share a birthday at half the parties you attend throughout the year. What sort of number do you think you would need? I imagine most of you have come up with quite a big number. But would you believe that statisticians tell us the minimum number is only twenty-three! If you go to a different party each week, with at least twenty-three new people at each, on average two people will have the same birthday half of the time. Or to put it another way, among the thirty . . .

SuperSense. Copyright (c) by Bruce Hood . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Bruce Hood is currently the chair of the Cognitive Development Center in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. He was a research fellow at Cambridge and has been a visiting scientist and professor at MIT and at Harvard. He has received many awards for his work in child development and cognitive neuroscience.

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Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author makes very valid points about how we as humans have a disposition for seeing patterns where they may not be evident. His conclusion about that it it leads us to believe in things despite a lack of evidence. He attributes this to a supersense which by his definition is superstition. However, that supersense could be the foundation of scientific discovery, and he seemed to dismiss that aspect. Overall an insightful book and interesting theory.
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