SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

A Lecture by Professor Bruce Hood March 17, 2010

Where do we humans get our supernatural beliefs from? It seems obvious to many that children are gullible and believe what they are told. But such an indoctrination account fails to answer a number of questions about supernatural beliefs. For instance, where do the beliefs come from in the first place? Why do highly educated people entertain belief in phenomena they cannot measure? Why do two brothers raised in the same household have different beliefs? And why do more women believe in the supernatural than men?

Prof. Hood, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol, examines an alternative and intriguing account to indoctrination to explain our belief in the supernatural, arguing that the human brain is especially designed to seek out structures and patterns in the world and generate causal explanations. This process, which begins early in child development and is spontaneous and untaught, is an intuitive way of understanding the world as a child, one that lays down the foundation of many adult supernatural beliefs. Although education may appear to eradicate such beliefs through the processes of reason, Prof. Hood contends that intuitive ways of understanding the world never go away, and that belief in supernatural forces leads to an acceptance of sacred values which are essential for group cohesion.

Professor Bruce Hood is currently Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol in the U.K. He has been a research fellow at Cambridge University and University College London, a visiting scientist at MIT, and a faculty professor at Harvard. He has been awarded an Alfred Sloan Fellowship in neuroscience, the Young Investigator Award from the International Society of Infancy Researchers, the Robert Fantz memorial award, and was recently voted to Fellowship status by the Society of American Psychological Science.

Location: The New York Academy of Sciences
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