How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

science_superstition.jpgFinally! I book to answer my burning question, “Why, in an age where scientific information is so readily available, to people prefer to belief in irrational ideas?” By irrational ideas I’m referring to religion, new-age mumbo jumbo, crummy appropriations of Native American beliefs, UFOs, etc. It boggles my mind that someone would prefer creationism — for which there is no proof, to evolution — which has almost limitless proof. The Science of Superstition sets out to answer this question with the following hypothesis: Because the human brain is made that way.

kanizsa_emergent_square.jpgBruce M. Hood, who is a professor of child development and cognitive development, cites numerous studies in this helpful book of how humans perceive and interpret their surroundings from 12 hours old, through various childhood ages, and adulthood. In these studies, he shows that humans have a natural propensity to “fill in the blanks” when information is missing, whether visually or experientially. For a visual example, he uses this illustration called a Kaniza figure. Both babies and adults see the square that isn’t actually there. *

Experientially, humans continually try to perceive patterns in a seemingly random world. They create rituals to try control a world that they cannot. Children easily create lucky charms or personal rituals to help them overcome fear. I remember that when I was three, my parents felt I was old enough to go to the bathroom alone in the middle of the night. Since this frightened me, I took a impulsively toy with me. But then, since one toy made me feel less afraid, I figured if is good, two is better. As time went on, I had to collect more and more toys until finally one night I did not make it to the bathroom in time. When I realize what I had done, I started to cry, and one parents or another appeared and assessed the situation. They kindly suggested I leave the toys behind in the future, which I did to avoid future embarrassment. I use the example because he coincides with Hood’s hypothesis that humans naturally develop ritual behavior (collecting toys to ward off unknown harm) and magical thinking (that I can control unknown harm — the bad –through toys — the good).

As we mature and develop rational thought, we never really rid ourselves of this type of thinking. Hood cites studies that show that we actually spontaneously have supernatural thoughts (his term for magical thinking) but actually expend energy to suppress these thoughts and act on the more rational one. It happens instantaneously, and we usually are not aware that we suppressing anything.

In some cases, though, this is the type of thinking we that is the root to many false ideas we stubbornly hold on to as adults. And for some adults it is easier to just believe the magical thinking and not work on developing rational thought. This is why some people are naturally drawn to religion and some are not. It is easier to believe in an all-seeing all-knowing god than random chaos. It works better for the typical human mind.

Of course, some people are not encouraged or repressed from developing rational thought, and instead encouraged to believe specific myths of ideology. Although sometimes a person who has only been encouraged to believe supernatural thoughts breaks away to follow rational thinking, often people don’t have the impulse, desire or courage to do so. And yet other people, raised without much supernatural thought, will be drawn to religion as an adult, simply because it brings them comfort.

Hood spends some time in his chapter “The Biology of Belief” exploring two things. One is that some people are naturally skeptics and some are believers, and that this can be traced to the amount of dopamine production in their brain. Whether the level of dopamine effects the person’s outlook or vice versa isn’t conclusively shown, although Hood seems to feel that it’s just a biological predisposition.

The other part of the chapter talks about the phenomenon that all people experience which is that someone is watching him. This is where his logic gets fuzzy. He claims that since this is a universal feeling that all people have without being taught, it is a prime example of the brain’s tendency towards imaginary occurrences. However, he quotes a study which showed that on average people can tell whether they are being watched or not even if they have no other cues to guide them. But since science can not show a way how that could be happening, it could not be happening. Somehow the data is flawed. Ahem? That idea is what’s pretty flawed. Could it be that it is happening, but science just doesn’t have a way to measure how? I think we all know that ignoring data that doesn’t fit your hypothesis is the antithesis of science.

A type of thought that Hood explores more successfully is the idea that inanmate objects can be imbued with the good or bad qualities of the owner. His favorite example is asking people if they would wear a sweater that was owned by a murderer. Most people will not put the sweater on. However, clothing worn by people we love, whether celebrities or relatives, is highly desirable. Many family arguments, sometimes never to be resolved, are about the division of a deceased relative’s cherished belongings. Objects of sentimental value are irreplaceable even if they themselves are inherently worthless. This is a better example of a non-religious supernatural thought that appears fairly spontaneously in humans. This type of thinking can extend beyond the personal to a group. For example, observant Jews cannot touch objects on the Sabbath which would lead them to do acts that are forbidden on the Sabbath. Since Jews cannot light fires on the Sabbath, matches are forbidden (muksah). In my experience with this custom, it was pretty easy to start thinking of the word muksah to mean tainted.

One obvious flaw I found in Hood’s thinking is that humans construe order out of a random universe. Babies will take objects and put like with like. Human brains like categories, order, and patterns and will impose them on their surrounding. But… who said the universe is random? Events that occur to us personally may seem random, but the universe itself is nothing but ordered. In fact, it’s the very orderliness of it that makes people think of divine origin, a mastermind, or gods behinds its creation. It is so ordered it is very difficult to think of it as being created randomly without forethought. Which is where a lot of religion comes from: the question “Who made this incredibly well-designed world?”

Of course, I don’t agree with everything that Hood puts forth in this book and find some holes in his thinking. But science, unlike many religions, is not stagnant but ever-evolving. Evolution is built into it because it’s based on human curiosity and exploration. Religion is based on ideas that are not supposed to change. It’s the permanence and eternalness of it that brings people comfort.

But outside of science and religion, there are thoughts about life and death and the universe that are brought about by wonderment and exploration. Many of these ideas we may have sound irrational but maybe, just maybe, it’s because science hasn’t figured out how it works yet. Like knowing when you’re being watched. Hood’s book does not take into account that there are still many, many things yet to be discovered through science and some phenomenon that today look like scientific impossibilities might yet be measured and observed.

For the most part, though, The Science of Superstition is a good book to start understanding why someone you know is more interested in astrology than astronomy and similar irrational pursuits. And, if you still want to participate in a religion after reading the book, his site has this handy and humorous chart on which one to pick.

*Apparently, babies get quickly bored when shown the same image over and over and stop paying attention to it. So they measure the babies attention to diagrams to see if they think they are seeing the same thing (drawings of square vs. the Kaniza emergent square).


4 Responses to “Book Review: The Science of Superstition by Bruce M. Hood”

  1. addendum: weird coincidence? : the nerge on September 18th, 2010 6:54 pm

    […] Book Review: The Science of Superstition by Bruce M. Hood […]

  2. Vikki from Evanston Pizza on October 11th, 2010 12:10 am

    Just wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your posts. Don’t have much to add, cheers!

  3. the nerger on October 15th, 2010 10:10 am

    Thanks, Vikki!

  4. What does it all mean? : the nerge on December 17th, 2010 10:10 am

    […] To whit: Recently the question “Why do I exist?” lead to “Why does anything exist?” which we then rephrased to “Why is there something instead of nothing?” We talked about this and felt that although we don’t believe in God, the everything is so incredibly well-structured, from the universes down through sub-atomic particles, that it is hard not to believe in a consciousness behind it all. It seems that our minds lends itself naturally to this conclusion, that we are somehow preprogrammed to see it in this way. But just because we an inclination toward a belief, it doesn’t mean that it is true. For example, humans are naturally afraid of spiders and snakes, but that doesn’t mean they are the most dangerous encounters we experience. In fact, I (an arachnophobe) have a brain that perceives fare more danger at the sight of a large spider than I do when speeding down the freeway, which statistically is thousands of times more dangerous to me. So, similarly, a propensity to imagine a creator does not mean that is how the universe came to be. Our brains have a propensity for a lot of nonsense, which alternatively is the wonderful world of imagination. (For more on this, see my post on The Science of Superstition). […]

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