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SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

Overview

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 ...

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SuperSense

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Science
In an account chock full of real-world examples reinforced by experimental research, Hood’s marvelous book is an important contribution to the psychological literature that is revealing the actuality of our very irrational human nature.
New Scientist
[A] fascinating, timely and important book. . . . Hood’s presentation of the science behind our supersense is crystal clear and utterly engaging.
Newsweek
“...a fun and illuminating book.”
Booklist
“Hood’s treatise provides a much-needed counterbalance to hardcore skeptics by arguing that supersense, while not exactly grounded in rationality, ultimately gives our lives meaning.”
Steven Pinker
An intriguing look at a feature of the human mind that is subtle in its operation but profound in its consequences.
Ori Brafman
Reading SuperSense is like having lunch with your favorite professor--the conversation spans religion, biology, psychology, philosophy, and early childhood development. One thing is for sure, you’ll never see the world in the same way again.
Paul Bloom
In recent years, there has been a lot written about religion, superstition, and faith, but there has never been a book like this. . . SuperSense is a joy to read—beautifully written, deeply clever and funny, replete with brilliant insights and observations.
Susan A. Gelman
Hood, a world-class scholar in the field of cognitive science, explains the many weird and wonderful ways that we humans naturally view the world as ruled by supernatural phenomena. Bruce Hood’s SuperSense is sensational.
Guy Claxton
Read this beautifully written book, and you will lose some childhood innocence about how the world works. But, it will leave you wiser about yourself, and what it is to be human.
Paul Broks
Magical thinking is a defining feature of the human mind – the source of all that is sublime and absurd about our species. In this timely exploration of the psychology of irrational belief Bruce Hood pulls off the rare feat of being both authoritative and wonderfully entertaining. Brilliant.
Daniel M. Wegner
A compelling account of how beliefs in the supernatural world spring from the natural way our minds make sense of our experiences.
Doctor - Susan Blackmore
If we understood our own irrationality, and why so many people believe in ghosts, spirits, and invisible powers, then we might be able to improve the way we think. With quirkily fun examples and fascinating experiments Bruce Hood explains why we can’t always escape our Supersense.
Marc Hauser
Supersense is a terrifically fun read. But it is much more: though we may forever believe in ghosts, goblins and the beneficent deities, with a dose of skeptical scientific realism, a la Hood, there is hope that sanity will prevail.
Paul BloomProfessor
In recent years, there has been a lot written about religion, superstition, and faith, but there has never been a book like this. . . SuperSense is a joy to read--beautifully written, deeply clever and funny, replete with brilliant insights and observations.
Susan A. GelmanSusan A. GelmanSusan A. Gelman
Dr. Hood, a world-class scholar in the field of cognitive science, explains the many weird and wonderful ways that we humans naturally view the world as ruled by supernatural phenomena. Bruce Hood’s SuperSense is sensational.
Dr. Susan Blackmore
If we understood our own irrationality, and why so many people believe in ghosts, spirits, and invisible powers, then we might be able to improve the way we think. With quirkily fun examples and fascinating experiments Bruce Hood explains why we can’t always escape our Supersense.
Library Journal

Hood (director, Bristol Cognitive Development Ctr., Univ. of Bristol) presents an intriguing study of an undefined sense apart from the five human senses with which we are familiar. He most often characterizes it as "supersense," something that all cultures appear to have in order to explain the unexplainable. He methodically makes his case, often referring to things that children universally believe. The human penchant for sorting and imbuing objects with a special essence, the mind-body problem, and human disgust are just some of the topics he tackles. Hood demonstrates that in many cultures, religions are based on the idea that there is a reality outside what we can scientifically document. This "extra" reality is also relied upon by those who claim that ESP, the paranormal, and magic are real. In the end, he posits that this supersense, even though it is not scientifically measurable, is important for society to function; it is part of the glue that binds us and makes us care about one another. This recommended title should spark discussion in both academic and public libraries.
—Margaret Cardwell

Kirkus Reviews
British experimental psychologist Hood (Cognitive Development/Univ. of Bristol) argues that superstition is the product of normal mental development. A high proportion of adults, even those who are scientifically literate, hold beliefs that qualify as superstition, writes the author. For example, people won't wear a sweater they are told belonged to a mass murderer, and some star athletes insist on repeating actions that have accompanied previous successes, such as always eating chicken before a game. The reason lies in psychology: We insist on finding meaning in the world, treating random events as if some hidden pattern links them. Behaviorist psychology grew out of Pavlov's and Skinner's recognition that our minds make such links on their own, writes Hood, but Piaget's more subtle analysis reveals that our brains have built-in abilities to recognize real patterns, like those displayed by natural phenomena, and that we are already doing so in infancy. A child dropping things is learning about gravity, and we also learn psychology at an early age, drawing inferences on how people respond to events and to our actions. But this useful faculty is also directed at inanimate objects, as when people give their cars names or curse at a computer for failing to do what it's told. Our mind's ability to see analogies leads to what anthropologists call "sympathetic magic," the notion that similar things are somehow connected to one another. (This is the idea behind homeopathic medicine, to cite one example.) Another psychological pattern leads us to associate special properties with certain items, such as a child's security blanket or the "lucky" items many adults carry with them. Collectors ofmemorabilia are also indulging in a kind of magical belief, as if something once owned by a famous person possesses that person's special qualities. Hood persuasively demonstrates that these beliefs originate in normal psychology, the rational patterns our minds use to make sense of our surroundings. Drawing on both laboratory results and everyday experience, he offers a clear perspective on the subject. Convincing treatment of a sensitive, frequently contentious issue. Agent: Andrew Stuart/The Stuart Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061452642
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/7/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 830,775
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

BRUCE HOOD is the author of The Science of Superstition and is one of the leading international authorities on child development and supernatural thinking in adults. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has been a faculty member at UCL and Harvard and was a visiting scientist at MIT. He is currently the chair of developmental psychology at Bristol University in England and director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre. Born in Toronto, he now lives in Bristol, England.

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Read an Excerpt

SuperSense
Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

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 givethem a creepy sensation. They talk about 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
Why We Believe in the Unbelievable
. Copyright (c) by Bruce Hood . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Why Do We Demolish Evil Houses?

1 What Secret Do John McEnroe and David Beckham Share? 1

2 Could You Wear a Killer's Cardigan? 21

3 Who Created Creationism? 37

4 Blooming, Buzzing Babies 73

5 Mind Reading 101 107

6 Freak Accidents 135

7 Would You Willingly Receive a Heart Transplant from a Murderer? 167

8 Why Do Traveling Salesmen Sleep with Teddy Bears? 197

9 The Biology of Belief 223

10 Would You Let Your Wife Sleep with Robert Redford? 249

Epilogue 255

Acknowledgments 257

Source Notes 259

Index 289

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2009

    A Fascinating and Compelling Read

    This was a real page turner full of funny, witty and amazing examples. I couldn't put it down and was pleasantly surprised that it was such a good read despite not being an expert in the field of Neuroscience. It clearly outlines why we continue to have superstitious, including religious beliefs, in spite of evidence to the contrary and the attempt by many to "educate" us out of these fundamental and necessary thought processes. If you found the God Delusion a must read, you will find Supersense an equally essential part of your library! This book should be read by skeptics and believers alike, everyone will find themselves looking back from the pages!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2010

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