Why We're Superstitious

  • Share
  • Read Later
Todd A. Gipstein / Corbis

Do you believe in god? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe you can tell when someone is staring at the back of your head? Religious or not, Bruce Hood believes that this is all a result the way the brain is designed. In Supersense, he describes how adult superstitions and beliefs in a higher power all comes from our inherent need to find patterns and order in the world. Hood talked to TIME about superstitions, shared beliefs and why most people would not want to wear Jeffrey Dahmer's cardigan.(What happens when we die? Read the TIME interview.)

One of your main points is that religion is not completely to blame for our belief in the supernatural. So where does it come from? You talk about this idea that humans are hard-wired, almost from birth, to believe in the supernatural.

The brain, and the mind it creates, is designed to seek out patterns in the environment, to interpret those patterns in a meaningful way and to look for causal mechanisms that can explain those patterns. In general, that leads to natural models of the world, but it can also lead you to a supernatural view, which is simply any explanation that goes beyond what we currently understand as the natural boundaries.

And you employ a very broad definition of supernatural. It's not just ghosts and spirits.

Yeah, the whole point of the book was to try to open up the argument to the whole realm of beliefs, rather than just focusing on the paranormal or even the religious. Most people are familiar with the arguments in regards to religion. Interestingly enough, though, people who are paranormal believers don't regard themselves as believing in the supernatural, they just think it's natural phenomena that science hasn't yet recognized. I think that's an important distinction. People who think they're religious recognize that their beliefs do fall into the supernatural, but they recognize this phenomena as divine intervention, while paranormal believers think that science is simply lagging behind in explaining the inexplicable.(See pictures from the annual UFO congress).

What are some examples of things that people believe science will one day explain?

Telepathy, precognition, anything that involves the mind. Typically they will think that humans have this untapped potential for connecting with each other over large distances, which would violate the current laws of physics as we currently understand them. Of course, they always respond with, "Well, the current laws of physics are always changing, so how can you be so certain that these things aren't real?" Well, we can't prove these things don't exist, but then they never really lay themselves open for scientific investigation. That's why it's really problematic to talk about them as being real science.

So, to get to the title of your book, what is a supersense?

Supersense is this human inclination that there are additional dimensions and forces and energies operating in the world. And they're not necessarily notions of heaven and hell and angels, but they can be. What religions have done is they've taken these inclinations and given them a framework, given them a narrative which seems plausible to people. The paranormal brigade talk about abilities that seem to also resonate with this idea that the mind seems to be somehow independent of the body.

So, this supersense encompasses both religious supernatural beliefs and secular supernatural beliefs? The latter essentially sounds like superstition.

Just speak to any athlete or sport fan, and they have little rituals that they have to engage in just to make sure the game goes ok. They have to wear their lucky shirts or they have to eat chicken before every baseball match, things like that. There's a number of very famous ones — John McEnroe wouldn't step on a white line, David Beckham is notoriously superstitious, Tiger Woods has to wear red on a Sunday when he plays golf.

And, as you write, most people hold supernatural beliefs, even when they don't think they do. Atheists, for example.

What atheists are doing, is they are rejecting religion. They've got their sights set on that issue. But what they're failing to acknowledge is that there's a whole set, or a whole wide range of beliefs that are premised on the paranormal and the supernatural. The issue of religion is completely separate. It's almost a political issue, in terms of whether religions are good or bad.

See the top 10 things you didn't know about Easter

See pictures from Semana Santa, Spain's holy week

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2