Review 126: Supersense

Supersense by Bruce Hood

Like many of you who are reading this, I can’t throw books away. Even thinking about it makes me uncomfortable, so there is no way I could possibly hold a book over a garbage can and just let it drop. Ugh.

I don’t know why this should be, to be honest. I mean, they’re just books, right? Paper and ink that anyone can buy. And not even special books – first edition, author-signed, sold to me by my beloved grandmother on her deathbed.

NOOO!! Take it down, Jimmy, take it down!!

I would be hard-pressed to throw away even bad books. Mein Kampf, Dianetics, A Series of Unfortunate Events – I would save even these from the trashpile. Not because they’re worth reading, but because they’re books.

I’m not a squishy, sentimental man, either. I can tell dead baby jokes without flinching. I’ve participated in the burning of an American Flag. I’ve flipped off the White House (it was the Bush era – I couldn’t NOT flip it off), and if you give me a photo of the Pope, I’m pretty sure I can tear it up on live TV.

So what is it about these mass-produced blocks of paper that instills in me such reverence? This question is part of what Bruce Hood discusses in his book Supersense, appropriately subtitled, “Why we believe in the unbelievable.”

Hood is a psychologist by trade, and this book is an investigation into why we persistently believe in things for which we have no evidence. This can range from religious adherence and the firm belief in things like “holiness” and “sinfulness” all the way to haunted houses, superstitious behavior, and the belief that evil acts can somehow “taint” a physical object. In one demonstration that he refers to throughout the book, Hood offers a cardigan to his audience. It’s a nice enough sweater, perhaps a little out of date, but clean and it looks comfortable. It’s the kind of cardigan you might wear on a chilly autumn evening and think nothing of it.

The Wests? Naw, they're fine people. Perfectly normal.

Then Hood tells the audience that the sweater belonged to Fred West. For those of us who are not from England, Fred West is one of the most notorious serial killers of the last century. Over a span of twenty years, he and his wife tortured, raped and murdered at least twelve girls, two of whom were their own daughters. They’re very well-known in England, and as soon as people found out that the nice comfortable cardigan had belonged to Fred West, no one wanted to touch it, much less put it on. Even though there’s no rational basis to believe so, many people believed that there was some kind of contamination linked to the sweater, and feared that Fred West’s evil would somehow transfer to them.

As someone who tries to be rational as much as possible, I have found myself wondering why I hold on to beliefs that I know are fundamentally irrational. I wonder it even more when I watch the news or surf the internet and see how many people believe in things like “healing energy,” homeopathy, guardian angels, magic spells and the like. “What century are we living in?” I ask myself as I curl up into a ball and weep. The Enlightenment was only two hundred years ago – why are we backsliding?

Thinkers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins believe that this kind of fundamental irrationality is a learned trait. Parents pass it on to children, who then pass it on to theirs. Dawkins even goes so far as to consider bringing your child to church to be “child abuse,” and believes that if only we can break the chain of superstition, a new Age of Reason will emerge.

Waiting 200 years and counting....

Hood disagrees, and he makes a pretty compelling case. He doesn’t argue for the existence of the supernatural at all in this book, but rather the sense of the supernatural – the Supersense, as he calls it. This is the feeling that someone is watching us, the belief that one object is somehow more “special” than another, identical object. It is the reason we plead with our computers when they don’t work, why we anthropomorphise so many things is our world, and why we revere the remains of saints and shun the sweaters of murderers. It is a sense that there should be a supernatural world out there, even if we can’t prove it.

Hood believes that the origin of this supersense is in the way our early minds develop as infants. In that very early stage of life, we try to make sense of the world as best we can. Babies are little scientists, testing reality against their observations again and again, and coming up with hypotheses about how the world should work. This need to understand the world is hard-wired into our brains as part of our “mind design,” and not only can we never get rid of it, it may be essential to our development into fully-formed human beings.

A smiling sun is not always a good thing.

By testing children and how they observe the world, Hood tries to see how the mind develops from birth onwards, without the years of cultural indoctrination that Dawkins and those of similar opinion decry. These tests show how children expect reality to behave, and what happens when their expectations don’t match their observations. He looks at how children imbue the world with life and purpose – the Sun, always smiling in children’s drawings, exists to give us light, trees to shade us and the grass is there for us to play on. This endowment of purpose, or telos, if we’re going to be philosophical and pompous, is something we continue to do even into adulthood.

The more we learn about the world, the more we find out that it doesn’t follow the common-sense rules that we laid down in our infancy. It’s hard to accept, for example, that we aren’t the end product of evolution – even worse, evolution has no end product in mind. What’s more, after our brains went through years and years of classifying the world into neat little categories such as “living/non-living; intelligent/non-intelligent; plant/animal,” it’s jarring to know that we’re only 5% of the way off from chimpanzees and 50% off from being bananas!

Children intuit the world as they grow, and that is part of the mind-building process. This is the architecture of our minds. More often than not, it produces a rational picture of the world and how it works, but not always – the trade-off is that some supernatural ideas come along for the ride. While the mind-building process does prepare us to exist in the greater world, it also makes us fundamentally irrational beings. Some people are more able to overcome this irrationality than others, but even the hard-core skeptics may find it difficult to put on the sweater of Fred West, or have trouble not smiling when they’re in the presence of the sweater of Fred Rogers.

Ahhh... I feel better.

In a way, this book was both a disappointment and a relief. I have always hoped that one day humanity would rise above its irrationality and start appreciating the world for what it is, instead of wasting time looking for things that just aren’t there. But if Hood’s hypothesis is correct, that’s never going to happen. As long as we are human, there will always be a streak of the irrational in us. Try as we might, we will always have superstitions, strange beliefs, and we will always be looking for things that we cannot see.

And of course, perhaps this is a good thing. This irrationality is what gives us passion, it’s what connects us together as a species and as societies. This belief in the sacred, for example, is what gives rise to shared values in a community and a shared sense of what is important and what is forbidden. Without it, we’d be a species of Lex Luthors – fundamentally selfish, sociopathic and without the ability to connect to others.

NO.

On a personal note, it means that maybe I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I mean, being rational is great and all, but when you get to the point where you find yourself thinking something like, “Yeah, what is the big deal about incest?” then you know that it’s time to give the prefrontal cortex a break. And instead of beating myself up for not being able to completely disavow all the goofy little supernatural things that I cling to, perhaps I can just accept them as part of what makes me who I am. I know there’s nothing truly special about my books, but the supersense tells me otherwise. It may not be right, but at least it gives my life a little more color.

————————————————-
“If it’s true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones.”
– Bruce Hood, Supersense
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Bruce Hood on Wikipedia
Supersense on Amazon.com
Bruce Hood’s blog

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Filed under Bruce Hood, children, nonfiction, pseudoscience, psychology, science

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