The Ghosts We Think We See

Just in time for Halloween, the latest edition of Newsweek has a neat article about the psychology of supernatural belief. Here are a couple of excerpts:

The mind also sees patterns in random data, which is why the sky is speckled with bears and big dippers. This drive to perceive patterns—which is very useful in interpreting experimental data as well as understanding people’s behavior—can also underlie such supernatural beliefs as seeing Jesus in the scorch marks and flecks of grain on a grilled-cheese sandwich. “If a stain looks like the Virgin Mary,” says Hood, “then it is a divine sign and not a coincidence. If the wind in the cave sounds like a voice, then it is a voice.” […]

The mind also tends to impute consciousness to inanimate objects (ever yell at a balky computer?). This leads us to believe that natural phenomena are “purposeful, caused by agents with sentient minds,” says Hood, whose book “The Supernatural Sense” is due next year. It’s only a short step to thinking that “ ‘things that go bump in the night’ are the result of some spirit or agent,” not branches brushing against your drainpipe.

Sound like anyone you know?

An important point made in the article is that the tendency to see patters that aren’t there or to impart consciousness to things that aren’t conscious is a normal outcome of the way the human brain functions, due in large part to having to deal with incomplete sensory input. A couple of important lesson to draw from this (to me anyway) is that, first of all, rigorous empirical testing is necessary in science precisely because everyday perception can be so badly misleading. And secondly, the brain’s wiring can make it very difficult for people to disabuse themselves of supernatural beliefs. I still don’t know what the best method of doing that is, but getting them to understand the underlying means by which such beliefs form is probably a useful exercise.