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In The Science of Superstition, cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood examines the ways in which humans understand the supernatural, revealing what makes us believe in the unbelievable.

*Previously published as SuperSense.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062009029
List price: $10.99
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My sister and I sort of looked at this together -- a sceptical atheist about to do a medical degree and a religious humanities graduate would not, you might think, agree at all when it comes to a book about supernatural feelings, thoughts and beliefs. (Before we go further, I'll add that I am the humanities graduate, for those who don't know me.) You'd think I'd be more resistant to the conclusions of the book, and that she'd be much happier to go along with it.

As it is, we both found the ideas fascinating, but somewhat lacking in rigour. For example, we both did the questionnaire at the end intended to measure one's level of 'supersense', and both came out with zero. This is not because we lack superstitions (she has a pair of Miffy socks which she wears for all exams; I ask my close friends to 'think good thoughts for me' in times of stress; neither of us can sleep without our teddy bears...) but because the questions were badly phrased. "Things sometimes seem to be in different places when I get home, even though no one has been there", for example. If you answer 'true', this counts as a point toward 'supersense' -- even if, like me and my sister, you actually have that feeling but know, without a doubt, that you just forgot where you put something down (or that someone else sharing the household came in unexpectedly). I don't think we have 'supersense', as defined by Bruce Hood, in that case: there's nothing mystical, to our minds, about how the situation came about.

So, interesting, but at times badly defined. Despite me and my sister's determination to break every question in the test, I think we all have superstitious beliefs, and that Hood is right that to some extent that behaviour is hard-wired into us. To his credit, he does ask after the set of questions whether it does actually measure 'supersense'.

It's particularly intriguing to read this as someone who suffers from anxiety, actually. I'm very used to questioning my own view of reality: if I have a generalised feeling of anxiety, I could choose to be afraid that I'm predicting a terrible event, or that there's a malevolent spirit in the room with me. However, I know I'm not and there isn't: somewhere something bad is happening, and no doubt someone is ill-wishing me, but I am certain I don't know about it through mystical means -- I'm just guessing. I once told my brother that something bad was going to happen because everyone we knew felt crappy; when I woke up the next morning, terrorist attacks had taken place in London. I believed I predicted that, but the logically trained part of me knows that it was a coincidence. I connected my prediction with the event because such an amazing event couldn't be a coincidence, but now I think about it and I'm sure that many other nights all our friends felt bad, and nothing bad happened the next day. I just didn't notice, because nothing important happened.

I can rationalise everything away if you let me at it for long enough, just as above, and in fact that's exactly what my doctor wants me to do, but at the same time I'm religious. I pray, and believe that it helps in some way -- not just that it makes me feel better, but that it has tangible results. How can you rationalise away all the bad/creepy stuff, and still believe in the positive stuff?

So yeah, this book is good to read if you're interested in questioning your own thoughts/beliefs and so on, and interestingly, it also ascribes a positive role in society to superstition and the like.more
Why do people find it so easy to believe in supernatural things, from gods to ghosts to lucky socks to ESP? Some think that we're taught these things as children and simply fail to question them, but Bruce Hood contends that it has a lot more to do with the way our brains naturally experience and categorize the world, from the time we're very young. For instance, he argues that we have an intuitive sense that everything -- and particularly every living thing -- has a fundamental, invisible essence that defines it, and which can rub off on the world around it. This explains, among other things, why people are so keen to touch things that used to to belong to celebrities, and why we instinctively recoil from the thought of wearing a serial killer's sweater, no matter how thoroughly it may have been washed.There are a lot of deeply interesting ideas in this book, many of which are bound to be quite eye-opening if you've never encountered them before, and are still fairly thought-provoking even if you have. Hood also provides lots of fascinating (if often quite disturbing) examples of this "SuperSense" at work. Unfortunately, though, the structure isn't quite as good as the content: there's a lot of rambling and repetition here, and Hood sometimes seems to circle around the points he wants to make for a long time, rather than getting at them directly.more
When Hood says that he knows his readers are superstitious otherwise they wouldn't be reading his book, that took me back a little. Those of us who are not religious on occasion want to know why others are. He does indeed wind some things around to fit his theories, but some of his theories explain a lot. He says intuitive thinking arises naturally in childhood because of human's need to find causation and patterns in their environments. Intuitive spiritual reasoning consists of animism or the idea that all natural objects have souls; vitalism, the idea that the activities of life are under the guidance of something; and teleological reasoning, that things in nature exist for a end. No one has to instill these ideas in children, but they can be reinforced by religion. Rational thinking is more difficult and arises as a person is educated in the sciences. He also cites a little bit of the studies on the VMAT2 gene that encourages spirituality and dopamine which encourages a person to see patterns in life where they may or may not exist. So he says in a way we have no free will in whether or not we are religious. He talks a little about secular forms of supernatural belief such as a belief in esp or the conviction that you can feel someone staring at you. He says supernatural beliefs are good in that they hold society together in a sense of connectedness within the group and within humanity. I can relate a little to this as I don't struggle about whether or not to believe, it just comes naturally to me not to. Guess I have low dopamine and no VMAT2 gene. He does tend to repeat himself and probably is simplistic, but I found much of this enlightening.more
This book was a bit different than I expected. First, it advocates supernatural beliefs, although not in the traditional sense. Second, it's mainly a book about child development. Bruce Hood states that we are born with instincts and learn things through a developed sense of intuition when we're young. Then those beliefs are replaced with rationale, but they never completely disappear. Hence our supersense. A wide range of topics are discussed. Overall a fairly quick and enjoyable read.more
Read all 6 reviews

Reviews

My sister and I sort of looked at this together -- a sceptical atheist about to do a medical degree and a religious humanities graduate would not, you might think, agree at all when it comes to a book about supernatural feelings, thoughts and beliefs. (Before we go further, I'll add that I am the humanities graduate, for those who don't know me.) You'd think I'd be more resistant to the conclusions of the book, and that she'd be much happier to go along with it.

As it is, we both found the ideas fascinating, but somewhat lacking in rigour. For example, we both did the questionnaire at the end intended to measure one's level of 'supersense', and both came out with zero. This is not because we lack superstitions (she has a pair of Miffy socks which she wears for all exams; I ask my close friends to 'think good thoughts for me' in times of stress; neither of us can sleep without our teddy bears...) but because the questions were badly phrased. "Things sometimes seem to be in different places when I get home, even though no one has been there", for example. If you answer 'true', this counts as a point toward 'supersense' -- even if, like me and my sister, you actually have that feeling but know, without a doubt, that you just forgot where you put something down (or that someone else sharing the household came in unexpectedly). I don't think we have 'supersense', as defined by Bruce Hood, in that case: there's nothing mystical, to our minds, about how the situation came about.

So, interesting, but at times badly defined. Despite me and my sister's determination to break every question in the test, I think we all have superstitious beliefs, and that Hood is right that to some extent that behaviour is hard-wired into us. To his credit, he does ask after the set of questions whether it does actually measure 'supersense'.

It's particularly intriguing to read this as someone who suffers from anxiety, actually. I'm very used to questioning my own view of reality: if I have a generalised feeling of anxiety, I could choose to be afraid that I'm predicting a terrible event, or that there's a malevolent spirit in the room with me. However, I know I'm not and there isn't: somewhere something bad is happening, and no doubt someone is ill-wishing me, but I am certain I don't know about it through mystical means -- I'm just guessing. I once told my brother that something bad was going to happen because everyone we knew felt crappy; when I woke up the next morning, terrorist attacks had taken place in London. I believed I predicted that, but the logically trained part of me knows that it was a coincidence. I connected my prediction with the event because such an amazing event couldn't be a coincidence, but now I think about it and I'm sure that many other nights all our friends felt bad, and nothing bad happened the next day. I just didn't notice, because nothing important happened.

I can rationalise everything away if you let me at it for long enough, just as above, and in fact that's exactly what my doctor wants me to do, but at the same time I'm religious. I pray, and believe that it helps in some way -- not just that it makes me feel better, but that it has tangible results. How can you rationalise away all the bad/creepy stuff, and still believe in the positive stuff?

So yeah, this book is good to read if you're interested in questioning your own thoughts/beliefs and so on, and interestingly, it also ascribes a positive role in society to superstition and the like.more
Why do people find it so easy to believe in supernatural things, from gods to ghosts to lucky socks to ESP? Some think that we're taught these things as children and simply fail to question them, but Bruce Hood contends that it has a lot more to do with the way our brains naturally experience and categorize the world, from the time we're very young. For instance, he argues that we have an intuitive sense that everything -- and particularly every living thing -- has a fundamental, invisible essence that defines it, and which can rub off on the world around it. This explains, among other things, why people are so keen to touch things that used to to belong to celebrities, and why we instinctively recoil from the thought of wearing a serial killer's sweater, no matter how thoroughly it may have been washed.There are a lot of deeply interesting ideas in this book, many of which are bound to be quite eye-opening if you've never encountered them before, and are still fairly thought-provoking even if you have. Hood also provides lots of fascinating (if often quite disturbing) examples of this "SuperSense" at work. Unfortunately, though, the structure isn't quite as good as the content: there's a lot of rambling and repetition here, and Hood sometimes seems to circle around the points he wants to make for a long time, rather than getting at them directly.more
When Hood says that he knows his readers are superstitious otherwise they wouldn't be reading his book, that took me back a little. Those of us who are not religious on occasion want to know why others are. He does indeed wind some things around to fit his theories, but some of his theories explain a lot. He says intuitive thinking arises naturally in childhood because of human's need to find causation and patterns in their environments. Intuitive spiritual reasoning consists of animism or the idea that all natural objects have souls; vitalism, the idea that the activities of life are under the guidance of something; and teleological reasoning, that things in nature exist for a end. No one has to instill these ideas in children, but they can be reinforced by religion. Rational thinking is more difficult and arises as a person is educated in the sciences. He also cites a little bit of the studies on the VMAT2 gene that encourages spirituality and dopamine which encourages a person to see patterns in life where they may or may not exist. So he says in a way we have no free will in whether or not we are religious. He talks a little about secular forms of supernatural belief such as a belief in esp or the conviction that you can feel someone staring at you. He says supernatural beliefs are good in that they hold society together in a sense of connectedness within the group and within humanity. I can relate a little to this as I don't struggle about whether or not to believe, it just comes naturally to me not to. Guess I have low dopamine and no VMAT2 gene. He does tend to repeat himself and probably is simplistic, but I found much of this enlightening.more
This book was a bit different than I expected. First, it advocates supernatural beliefs, although not in the traditional sense. Second, it's mainly a book about child development. Bruce Hood states that we are born with instincts and learn things through a developed sense of intuition when we're young. Then those beliefs are replaced with rationale, but they never completely disappear. Hence our supersense. A wide range of topics are discussed. Overall a fairly quick and enjoyable read.more
Interesting premise--we are programmed to see faces/gods in patterns and relationships--but ultimately bogged down in extraneous detail. Rambling.more
I heard Bruce Hood talking on Radio 4 and was sufficiently interested in what he had to say to buy his book - after all, a popular science writer engaging on the question of *why* we are impelled to believe in the supernatural, rather than intolerantly railing about how deluded people are that do, seemed like a healthy change. And Hood sets his book up nicely with some queasy dilemmas that will trouble not just the delusional among us: would *you* feel comfortable wearing Fred West's cardigan? I know I wouldn't. Hood's thesis is that, through evolution or fiat, our brains are disposed - wired, if you like - to think this way, and along with the blindingly irrational proclivities that so exercise Richard Dawkins come many useful survival strategies. To throw out the bathwater risks losing the baby, Hood implies, and I think he would say the bath doesn't have a plug in any case: We couldn't change this aspect of our cognitive faculties even if we wanted to. For all its intriguing premise it's a somewhat laboured book which sets its premise out early and then takes an inordinate amount of time to move beyond it, and in the mean time Hood allows himself to be sidetracked too easily, at one point indulging in a lengthy but granted interesting disquisition on the historical antecedents of the Dracula story, to no obvious point. There is much to be mined in the observation that, for all our enlightened rationalist protestations, collectively and individually we still behave bizarrely most of the time - so perhaps there is something to be said for leavening the will to rationality that has been behind much modern economics, biology and sociology - and while this book glances in that direction it never really casts a longing stare there, and ultimately is of passing interest rather than genuine clout.more
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