From Abracadabra to Zombies
SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable
by Bruce Hood
[Note: This review is of the Kindle edition. The book is available in hardback and paperback under the title The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs.]
If you've ever wondered why the full moon looks so large when it rises over the eastern horizon, you will probably love this book. Of course, if you don't like being told that your brain creates an illusion at moonrise, then you may be disturbed by what Dr. Hood has to tell you about your brain and how it creates the world you experience.
The same brain that tells you that the moon is larger at moonrise than it is later in the night when it appears directly above you also tells you that the moon's size doesn't change and that the movement you perceive is much more complicated than you might think. The moon's distance from you at moonrise and the distance several hours later when it looks much smaller is essentially the same. The Earth is not standing still but is moving through space in a solar system that is moving through space in a galaxy that is moving through space....It took billions of years for this planet and its moon to get where they are now and it took millions of years for our species to evolve with its magnificent brain. But that brain is a trickster, a magnificent, glorious trickster.
Most readers of Supersense probably know that the brain "fills in" the blind spot and sees patterns in Kaniza figures. They probably also know that some people experience pain or pleasure in limbs that have been amputated, thanks to their wonderful brains. When you look at yourself and the world around you, you probably sense that you and it are pretty solid. If you've studied physics, you know that most of our universe is empty space. Not only do objects seem solid, they seem colored and they appear in various spatial arrangements as if they have the power to grow as you come near and shrink as you move away from them. Many of those stars you see in the night sky no longer exist. How can you see something that doesn't exist? Science has the answer, of course. For some of us, it is unnerving to realize that our natural, intuitive way of perceiving the world is mostly incorrect. If we were designed, we were designed to be deceived.
Hood does not need to persuade most readers that the brain does not work like a video camera, that it constructs what we perceive. Some, however, might take issue with his claim that it is our brain, acting naturally and instinctively, rather than critically and rationally, that leads us to believe in supernatural powers, beings, and processes. Many think that supernatural beliefs originate in religious training and acculturation or divine intervention. But where did the first religious beliefs originate? wonders Hood. He takes it for granted that stories of gods speaking to prophets are not true. He thinks supernatural beliefs originated in the brain without the help of gods, angels, or social institutions. Such beliefs are instinctive and intuitive, he says. Being superstitious is in our nature.
He divides the supernatural into the religious and the secular. The latter includes such things as belief in the paranormal. He considers beliefs in gods, souls, essences, and psychic powers to be superstitions, yet he is not on a crusade to correct the errors of the vast majority of mankind. In fact, Hood believes that because of the way our brain has evolved, we will never overcome superstition and our natural tendency to magical thinking. There will always be religious and paranormal beliefs, no matter what science discovers, no matter how educated we become, no matter how good our critical thinking skills and arguments are. Even the brightest among us will be ensnared by some superstition, religious or secular. (The "supersense" in the title of Hood's book refers to this natural tendency to magical thinking and superstition.) He needed no better example of this fact than what occurred in July 2010 at the Amazing Meeting 8 where Hood spoke. I wrote in my report on TAM8:
....after [Hood's] talk on relics and magical thinking an announcement went up that there was still time to put in an auction bid on some duct tape used by Adam Savage on one of the Mythbuster shows. Hood was a bit amused by the fact that after his talk several people sought his autograph. Well, at least they weren't trying to steal a bit of his hair! He has a humorous blog post about his experience at TAM that is more informative than anything I might write.
The James Randi Educational Foundation is one of the premier skeptical organizations on the planet, and yet at every Amazing Meeting people line up for autographs and bid on scraps of cloth or paper once touched by famous people. What could be more irrational than wanting a piece of duct tape used by Adam Savage? Yet, this group of fervent skeptics enjoys this bit of fundraising fun as if it were every bit as rational as shaking the hand of their host. (I admit that I've been asked several times to sign copies of The Skeptic's Dictionary and I've done it. I find the experience both pleasing and discomforting. I'm pleased at the attention, but I realize how weird the whole autograph thing is.)
Hood has come to his conclusion about the intractability of the irrational in large part due to his study of how the brain works in children. Those of us who grow up to be skeptics and atheists are going against the grain; we're "unnatural" in the sense that it is counterintuitive to place science, critical thinking, and logic above the intuitions we have of free will, dualism, essences, and supernatural and paranormal powers. Philosophers who have argued for a tabula rasa at birth, such as John Locke, are clearly wrong if one thinks of the brain as providing the structure or form of experience. But they are right if one thinks of the brain as providing the specific content of ideas before any interaction with the environment occurs. We may have a natural tendency to interpret experience in supernatural terms, but the specific nature of our deities isn't something we're born with. Likewise, we may have a natural tendency to see the world as full of substances with essences and accidental properties, but that doesn't mean that there really are essences or substances that exist independently of our experience. Our language with its subjects and predicates may reflect our natural way of looking at the world, but our brains tell us that the world does not have to conform to the way we instinctively perceive it.
It may be irrational to shun a sweater once worn by a murderer or to feel comfort at the touch of a favorite childhood blanket. It may be the case that we can't help the way we feel about such things. Yet, if there were not something natural about scientific and critical thinking, it is unlikely the species would ever have developed them to the degree we have. It may be natural to see things as having essences, but it is also natural to reflect on that belief (as Hood does) and wonder about its truth. It may be true that religious beliefs emerged out of natural tendencies to see the world as full of spirits (animism) and to ignorantly attribute causal connections to invisible powers and visible effects. That doesn't make atheism or agnosticism unnatural. It makes it more difficult to adhere to them because of the pressure put on nonbelievers by family, friends, and society. But rejecting religious ideas as superstitions, delusions, fantasies, etc. is as natural as accepting them, even if skepticism is not instinctive or intuitive.
Children's brains may lead them to see the world in terms of supernatural and paranormal forces, but the adult brain has evolved to correct its own errors and uncover the nature of its own illusions. The human brain is still evolving. How children think may reveal vestiges of our ancestral evolutionary history, but their brains are not the ones I would use to measure human nature by. It is true that many children and many adults accept supernatural and paranormal beliefs until they are disproved beyond a reasonable doubt. It's true that many adults will never yield their beliefs in superstitions, no matter what the evidence is. It is also true that many adults won't accept any claim until it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In any case, the first word that occurs to me when I think of adults who think like children isn't the word 'natural.' For many of us, adulthood is a constant struggle to overcome the false beliefs we acquired in childhood.
It may be true that the brain naturally imbues certain persons, places, and things with significance. But the brain is also capable of perceiving that stones or mountains or sets of beads are sacred only because some people believe they are. If one person is capable of recognizing that a rabbit's foot cannot be imbued with luck-producing qualities, then almost everyone should be capable of overcoming the natural tendency to attribute to non-magical objects magical qualities. One obvious reason not everybody is still stuck in a world completely dominated by superstition is learning. There are limits, of course, to what we can learn, and knowing something isn't always sufficient to alter erroneous beliefs or self-destructive behaviors. And certainly many of our irrational and false beliefs are comforting and advantageous. (As Hood notes, superstitious beliefs and practices reduce stress caused by uncertainty.) Weeding out the ones that are harmful from those that are benign is not always easy, but it does us little benefit as a species to recognize that a sense of the sacred and profane will always be with us and yet do nothing to remove the taboos and superstitions that are most harmful.
It may be true that humans have a natural sense of repulsion for some things and that the idea of not having free will and not living forever are repulsive to many people, but I don't agree with Hood that determinism and non-immortality are "too unnatural and too repulsive to be accepted by most people." I would argue that most people haven't really thought about these things that deeply, but when they do they will not be repulsed, but relieved.
I would agree with Hood that much of our thinking and behavior is not understood by us and is due to various hormones, neurochemicals, and unconscious brain processes. Understanding oxytocin, dopamine, and how the brain works helps us understand ourselves better. The emotional and social forces that drive human beliefs may originate in biology and manifest themselves in a variety of ways in different cultures, but I see no reason to assume that knowledge and education can't continue to chip away at superstition and magical thinking. It may also be true that society needs a sense of the sacred to bind it. But what a society determines to be taboo need not be so open-ended that we fail to see the difference between, say, a taboo of mutilating dead human bodies and a taboo of stomping on a piece of bread that someone believes embodies a divinity. Eliminating irrationality altogether is unrealistic, but reducing much of it, especially religious irrationality, seems a noble goal. The fact that our species has flourished indicates that irrationality can't be completely detrimental to the species or to the individual. And even the most rational among us can have his brain hijacked by disease, distress, and damage despite education, knowledge, practice, or devotion to rationality.
What I most agree with Hood on is the value of studying the brains of believers and skeptics. Much interesting and valuable work has been done by researchers such as Peter Brugger, Chris French,, Steven Pinker, Richard Wiseman, and Hood himself. Trying to understand our rationality and our irrationality from the inside is one of the best games in town.
In exploring the origins of superstitions about the supernatural and the paranormal, Hood covers some subjects that many readers of The Skeptic's Dictionary will find familiar. He has an excellent review of the staring effect and the work of Rupert Sheldrake on morphic resonance. His examples of such things as sympathetic magic, however, are quite different from anything I take up. John R. Brinkley, the "goat gonad doctor," is somebody I'd never heard of before. You can guess what kind of ideas he had by his title. You might be surprised, however, by his success at getting others to accept his magical thinking. Brinkley is just one of many unusual characters Dr. Hood will introduce you to. I may discuss pareidolia in detail, but I'd never heard of the case of the haunted scrotum or the Coco de Mer. Nor was I familiar with the research on disgust by Paul Rozin. (Click here for a disgusting or delightful bit of pareidolia.) Hood also has some interesting comments on cellular memory and a host of other topics taken up in The Skeptic's Dictionary. Even though many of the topics were familiar to me, Hood's examples and presentations are fresh and stimulating. He comments early in his book that he didn't think too many skeptics would finish it. I don't see why not. It's well written and full of items that should stimulate the curiosity of skeptics and believers alike.
Read a sample of the book below.
Some notes on the Kindle edition: I can't recommend any Kindle book that has endnotes or footnotes. It is much too cumbersome to navigate back and forth between text and notes.
On the other hand, I can't say that the iBook experience with Hitchen's Hitch 22 was much better. Each note in that iBook on the iPad was marked with an asterisk. Tapping it took one to a page with many notes, each preceded by an asterisk. If you could figure out which note was the one you wanted, you could then tap on the asterisk in front of the note and be brought back to the page from which you started. The experience of trying to figure out which note was the one I wanted got too annoying and I abandoned reading Hitchens's notes.
In a Kindle book, one must hit a button to get to a menu from which one selects Table of Contents. From there one selects Source Notes, which takes one to the first page of the source notes. One must then go through each chapter's notes until one arrives at the note one wants. Of course, if you don't remember what chapter you are reading, you will have to start over. On the other hand if you know the location (a number between 1 and 5401) to which you want to go and return, you can use the Location button from the Table of Contents. If you think my explanation is confusing, you should try navigating to notes in a Kindle book.
Robert T. Carroll
1 October 2010
If you liked this book, you will probably also like: Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, David J. Linden's The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, and Cordelia Fine's A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives.