A study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology has given us at least a hint of why some people never leave behind their unsupported beliefs in the paranormal. Its title -- which breaks the general rule that articles whose titles are questions always should be answered "No" -- is, "Does Poor Understanding of Physical World Predict Religious and Paranormal Beliefs?" The researchers who conducted the study, Marjaana Lindeman and Annika M. Svedholm-Häkkinen of the Institute of Behavioral Studies at the University of Helsinki, looked at a group of 258 people and examined how real-world knowledge of science correlated with belief in the supernatural. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found a series of strong correlations:
The results showed that supernatural beliefs correlated with all variables that were included, namely, with low systemizing, poor intuitive physics skills, poor mechanical ability, poor mental rotation, low school grades in mathematics and physics, poor common knowledge about physical and biological phenomena, intuitive and analytical thinking styles, and in particular, with assigning mentality to non-mental phenomena. Regression analyses indicated that the strongest predictors of the beliefs were overall physical capability (a factor representing most physical skills, interests, and knowledge) and intuitive thinking style.
Nonscientific ways of thinking are resistant to formal instruction… which can affect individuals’ ability to act as informed citizens to make reasoned judgments in a world that is increasingly governed by technology and scientific knowledge.
We examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging the brain activity of 12 supernatural believers and 11 skeptics who first imagined themselves in critical life situations (e.g. problems in intimate relationships) and then watched emotionally charged pictures of lifeless objects and scenery (e.g. two red cherries bound together). Supernatural believers reported seeing signs of how the situations were going to turn out in the pictures more often than skeptics did. Viewing the pictures activated the same brain regions among all participants (e.g. the left inferior frontal gyrus, IFG). However, the right IFG, previously associated with cognitive inhibition, was activated more strongly in skeptics than in supernatural believers, and its activation was negatively correlated to sign seeing in both participant groups.
But I'm still not throwing away the Tarot cards. They're kinda pretty, even if they're almost certainly useless for predicting the future.
As someone who is both a scientist and a musician, I've been fascinated for many years with how our brains make sense of sounds.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman makes the point that our ears (and other sense organs) are like peripherals, with the brain as the central processing unit; all our brain has access to are the changes in voltage distribution in the neurons that plug into it, and those changes happen because of stimulating some sensory organ. If that voltage change is blocked, or amplified, or goes to the wrong place, then that is what we experience. In a very real way, your brain creates your world.
This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week looks specifically at how we generate a sonic landscape, from vibrations passing through the sound collecting devices in the ear that stimulate the hair cells in the cochlea, which then produce electrical impulses that are sent to the brain. From that, we make sense of our acoustic world -- whether it's a symphony orchestra, a distant thunderstorm, a cat meowing, an explosion, or an airplane flying overhead.
In Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World, neuroscientist Nina Kraus considers how this system works, how it produces the soundscape we live in... and what happens when it malfunctions. This is a must-read for anyone who is a musician or who has a fascination with how our own bodies work -- or both. Put it on your to-read list; you won't be disappointed.
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]