Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Inimitable Bruce Hood: Why we believe in the unbelievable

It's been a while since I posted as I've been busy getting around, as I do. For those that are interested, you can follow me on twitter.

It was the twenty-second day of June, 2009, I think, when I left my amazing customer services job to head to The Penderel's Oak in sunny Holborn for the monthly event we lovingly refer to as "Sceptics In The Pub" (although for some reason, it's spelt "skeptics"). On this fine evening, we were to be subjected to a talk by the sharply attired Professor Bruce Hood, who would make us laugh, wince, and spill Kopparberg down my pretty dress.

Before I continue, I'd just like to give a shout out to Sense About Science. If you don't know what it is or haven't signed up to it (or both) please do so here. To show off my creative prowess, I'd made a special fascinator to schmooze my way around the room in even more style than usual.

Back to the lecture: After some ritual technical difficulties (and insults thrown towards Sid) the talk began with the speaker's initial reaction to being invited to speak to us. He assumed it would be a bunch of middle aged men with beards, but Crispian and his ilk are fast becoming a minority as we young upstarts keep turning up :-) There were still some men with beards, but they were quite hip beards interspersed with the CAMRA beards.

Anyway, the main premises of the talk was how our preconceptions, our ideas, expectations and concepts shape how we perceive the world - and that the way we think about the world can explain the prevalence of supernatural beliefs.

We were shown this video of Kevin James smacking Sharon Osbourne in the gob (metaphorically). Most adults would assume it's a trick because we're fairly certain that you couldn't survive being chopped in half, and stapled back together. Apparently, around three-quarters of us endorse the supernatural - not just "healing energies" and "magick water", but so-called Secular Supernatural forces like telepathy or pre-cognition. According to Prof. Hood, nine out of ten people believe they know when they are being watched from behind. "Woo" is mainstream - look at horoscopes in pretty much all women's magazines, homeopathic "cures" in Boots, and Gloria Hunniford.

Despite the best efforts of prominent scientists like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins highlighting the debate on the supernatural to allow us normal folk to be more sceptical, many people still hold on to the spiritual. This may be due to science in general having a bad name, or it could be something to do with the way our brains are wired to the world:

How many times have we had a dream that comes true? I live in fear that a man with motorbikes for hands will try to eat me. Luckily, I've had this dream so many times that I've worked out he doesn't have opposeable thumbs so all he can do is bludgeon me to the point of near-death and rely on his girlfriend to cut me up for him to eat. Even luckier for me is that she is a closet lesbian and doesn't want to eat me (in that way, if you know what I mean) because I'm so damned beautiful. I haven't worked out how to tell her that I think she's a great person but I'm not actually gay. Hopefully she'll take it well.

Our brains have evolved to see structure and patterns in practically everything, from faces on the moon to penises in the clouds to Elvis shaped potatoes. Prof. Hood is able to peek into our brains, into our visual cortex, to find the cells that create these phenomenological experiences. These give us our intuitive theories from childhood, that are difficult to modify later in life. For example, children under five years old are already figuring out the world and the people in it. Another example: my eight year old cousin didn't believe me when I told her that some women are older than some men, because her dad's older than her mum and she has two older brothers. Even when I showed her my ID stating that I was (slightly) older than her brothers she thought it must be some elaborate hoax.

Other ideas like Natural Selection are not things that we are easily able to come to terms with, because as children, we are naturally inclined to believe that the world must have been created - we see obvious structure in everything - bumblebees, walnuts, Lego. It is much easier to accept that the world was just created, than it is to believe that it grew and evolved in the tiniest increments over billions of years, even though we have all this pesky evidence to suggest so!

Next, Professor Hood went on to the subject of Anthropomorphism - the ability to attach humanity to inanimate objects (like shouting at the DVD player, or congratulating your car on not breaking down). We attach sentimental value to inanimate objects, like jewellery owned by family members, or a cardigan owned by a serial killer.

This sentimentality can be taken even further. A few years ago, a book was released by a woman called Claire Sylvia, who had been the patient in a pioneering heart-lung transplant. You can read an article about it here. She's not the only one. There are more examples: Ian and Linda Gammons share the same dreams among other things, since she donated one of her kidneys to him. And lastly, Armin Meiwes, in a bizarre tale of mutually agreed cannibalism, was convinced that as he devoured Bernd-Jurgen Brandes he took on some of his abilities, like speaking English!

With the exception of Meiwes, these people are not mad, crazy lunatics. They are normal people who had life saving experiences, which made them alter their outlook on life. There could be any number of reasons as to why someone would be attracted to blondes later on in life. Perhaps a new lease of life has made them more adventurous? Perhaps after suffering for years without the joys of KFC, they suddenly want to throw caution to the wind and eat as much as they can get? We've all done it. What I find interesting is that we interpret these changes as supernatural because this seems to be the most logical, rational explanation at the time.

We are always interpreting the world. We do not sit there and passively receive information (unless we're watching Hollyoaks, of course, which has no real information to impart). There is a struggle between our intuitive theories and our rational ones. Supernatural beliefs could just be the products of our misconceptions, however we also seek out more plausible sacred values like football, or Michael Jackson, or even science.

The truth is out there, we're just interpreting it differently.

For more information, please visit Bruce Hood's excellent blog.

Edit: I originally put July instead of June. I'm getting way ahead of myself. Already spent July's wages here


  1. But what is the dividing line between the natural and supernatural? The electric motor would have appeared supernatural to Isaac Newton. There may be things going on that scientists do not yet comprehend.

  2. Hi dividing line comes down to replicable phenomena, not explanations. Supernatural phenomena do not replicate. If they did they would become natural phenomena we don't yet understand.

    There's tons of stuff we don't comprehend but that does not make them supernatural. There's also loads of natural phenomena we don't understand but at least they are replicable.
    Does that make sense?

  3. Thanks for the comment Bruce.

    I was going to say something along those lines in my next post regarding the most "cloneworthy" dog in the world, Trakr. The judges (?) decided that out of all the dogs in the world, this one had something so special about him that we could do with another 5 of them, also linking to Star Trek: Nemesis, in which Jean Luc is cloned but his clone is a bit evil and has a blood disorder (and is also bald at 30). They have to battle it out rather dramatically. I won't spoil the ending.
    There are an infinity of things that scientists don't yet comprehend, and I think our groundbreaking (but futuristically insignificant) attempts to understand the world and beyond may lead to the gap between natural and supernatural getting smaller and smaller. The thing about hindsight, is that we don't have it yet.

    I *was* gonna write about that, but I think I'll just take some photo's of my new physics inspired range of lingerie, entitled "Higgs Bosom's" (or "Higgs Beau-somes" - haven't decided yet).