The Truth Is Here: Studying the Minds of Paranormal Believers | science and technology
When people talk about the paranormal, they are usually referring to apparitions, clairvoyance, and other occurrences that challenge basic tenets of scientific understanding. Although the perception exists that these spirits appear more often in times of crisis, such as during the coronavirus pandemic, in reality there must be a breeding ground in human psychology that allows them to flourish. Twenty years ago, the Spanish Center for Sociological Research (CIS) conducted a survey in which 20% of Spaniards said they believed in ghosts and 9% in clairvoyance. At a time when conspiracy theories and other irrational explanations are on the rise, understanding the minds of those who place their faith in the paranormal could be the first step to unraveling its foundations.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of things, a group of British researchers reviewed 71 scientific studies published over the past three decades in a bid to find reliable patterns of how believers think. Among all these articles, which focus on factors as contrasting as education, intelligence or perception, there is little overlap, according to the results of the study published in the scientific journal Plos One. But he draws three conclusions that may help us better understand why some people see a blur in a photo and believe their great-great-grandfather appears to them.
One of the defining traits of these people is that they are less able to accept random events: that is, they are more likely to see patterns where there are only dots placed at random, or seeing a face where there are only shadows. . “Results show greater consistency when perceptual decision-making tasks involve identifying a human face/agent (rather than inanimate objects or animals), with believers making significantly more false positive identifications than skeptics,” the study says in its abstract. This factor is explicit: if, faced with an ambiguous stimulus, we believe we see something as concrete and defined as a face, it is easier for unexplained phenomena to appear in our environment.
Neuroscientist Susana Martínez-Conde says the mechanism behind it is clear: “The human brain is always trying to connect cause and effect or trying to come up with explanations to assign meaning to things that don’t have meaning. . Much of the information around us is random, chaotic and disorganized and our brain tries to impose some kind of order. This has served us well during human evolution, but of course we can also relate cause and effect in the wrong way. It’s the basis of superstition and paranormal beliefs, says Martínez-Conde, and it may even explain the illusions we feel during a magic show, when the magician waves his hand to make the rabbit disappear.
After reviewing the studies, the researchers – from the University of Hertfordshire and led by Charlotte E. Dean from the Department of Psychology, School of Life and Medical Sciences – found that this belief in the paranormal also occurs more regularly in those who jump to conclusions. , although there is a significant lack of data to support this possibility. In these cases, there would be a more accentuated natural tendency to confirm or reject an option without looking at the possible alternative explanations: if a psychic levitates, it is because he possesses otherworldly powers.
Psychology professor Helena Matute and her team have studied this phenomenon and also observed the same mechanism. For example, they showed the subjects medical records in which the patients had or had not received drugs, which had cured them or not. Those with paranormal beliefs were quicker to conclude that the drug had worked, even though half of the patients had not been cured or had not taken it in the first place. “They pay more attention when cause and effect coincide,” says Matute, from the University of Deusto. “It’s not that you see a ghost, it’s that you think too fast, which is a tendency we all have.”
The model that best describes these subjects is their way of thinking, which is more intuitive than analytical. This aspect is closely related to the findings of the Hertfordshire researchers, as it shows a tendency to rely on first impressions, relying on instinct, instead of drawing conclusions through a more analytical process. A recent study showed that people who believe in parapsychology tend to be more satisfied with their lives than skeptics. The author of this work, David Gallo, says that this is a trend that has been observed in previous surveys and that “it could indicate that processing information in a more intuitive way has its advantages; maybe it makes people happier in general.
Paranormal and conspiracy theories
An interesting aspect of the University of Hertfordshire study is its relationship to conspiratorial thought, which has sometimes even led to acts of political violence, and which could lead to a better understanding of these thought processes, at least in from a cognitive point of view. “Conspiratorial beliefs are also associated with increased perception of illusory patterns, reduced need for cognitive reflection, and biases against confirmatory and non-confirmatory evidence,” the paper notes.
“What conspiracy theories and paranormal phenomena have in common is that we lack objective evidence to support them,” says Martínez-Conde, director of the Integrative Neuroscience Laboratory at the State University of New York. . “Furthermore, they arise from an experience that is more emotional than intellectual. As such, if someone is emotionally convinced that something is as it appears, it is very difficult to change their opinion, even with objective evidence, and it becomes a matter of faith. .
In the study, many factors previously associated with paranormal thinking are either refuted or questioned, as the relationship is either negative, weak, or contradictory. For example, it has been proven that school performance, critical thinking, intelligence, memory (which could be the source of distortions or prejudices) explain the belief in paranormal phenomena. The researchers point out that there is no existing theoretical model that can accurately describe the patchwork of smaller explanations drawn by their examination.
Matute agrees that there is still a lot of research to be done. “Many of us study paranormal beliefs, pseudo-medicines, post-truth and hoaxes. There are many related aspects and so far they have been studied very separately. Perhaps is it true that we have to take the bull by the horns and unify all this information: it is absolutely necessary to carry out more in-depth research on all this.