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Metaphysics & Psychology

Psychology: The truth about the paranormal

In the 21st Century, why do so many people still believe in the paranormal? David Robson discovers that there’s good reason we hold superstitions – and a few surprising benefits.

Soon after World War II, Winston Churchill was visiting the White House when he is said to have had an uncanny experience. Having had a long bath with a Scotch and cigar, he reportedly walked into the adjoining bedroom – only to be met by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Unflappable, even while completely naked, Churchill apparently announced: “Good evening, Mr President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.” The spirit smiled and vanished.

“We create beliefs because we don’t like believing that the universe is random” — Adam Waytz, psychologist

His supposed contact with the supernatural puts Churchill in illustrious company. Arthur Conan Doyle spoke to ghosts through mediums, while Alan Turing believed in telepathy. Three men who were all known for their razor-sharp thinking, yet couldn’t stop themselves from believing in the impossible. You may well join them. According to recent surveys, as many as three quarters of Americans believe in the paranormal, in some form, while nearly one in five claim to have actually seen a ghost.

Intrigued by these persistent beliefs, psychologists have started to look at why some of us can’t shake off old superstitions and folk-lore. Their findings may suggest some hidden virtues to believing in the paranormal. At the very least, it should cause you to question whether you hold more insidious beliefs about the world.

Some paranormal experiences are easily explainable, based on faulty activity in the brain. Reports of poltergeists invisibly moving objects seem to be consistent with damage to certain regions of the right hemisphere that are responsible for visual processing; certain forms of epilepsy, meanwhile, can cause the spooky feeling that a presence is stalking you close by – perhaps underlying accounts of faceless “shadow people” lurking in the surroundings.

(Thinkstock)
(Thinkstock)

Out-of-body experiences, meanwhile, are now accepted neurological phenomena, while certain visual illusions could confound the healthy brain and create mythical beings. For example, one young Italian psychologist looked in the mirror one morning to find a grizzled old man staring back at him. His later experiments confirmed that the illusion is surprisingly common when you look at your reflection in the half light, perhaps because the brain struggles to construct the contours of your face, so it begins to try to fill in the missing information – even if that leads to the appearance of skulls, old hags or hideous animals.

So any combination of exhaustion, drugs, alcohol, and tricks of the light could contribute to single, isolated sightings, like that reported by Churchill. But what about the experiences of people like Conan Doyle, who seemed to see other-worldly actions on a day-to-day basis?

Protective shield

Psychologists studying religion have long suspected that a belief in the paranormal can be a kind of shield from the even harsher truths of the world. The idea is that when something unexpected happens – a death, natural disaster, or job loss – the brain scrambles around for answers, looking for meaning in the chaos. “It’s such an aversive state that if it can’t gain control objectively, we will get it by perceiving more structures around us, even if they don’t exist,” says Jennifer Whitson at the University of Texas, who studies pattern perception, and judgment and decision making. Even simply asking people to remember a time when they felt out of control, can make people see illusory forces at work, she has found. That included seeing patterns in the random movements of the stock market, for example, but it could also manifest itself by linking two unconnected events, such as the belief that “knocking on wood” for good luck would improve your chances in a job interview.

(Thinkstock)
(Thinkstock)

Anthropomorphism is another common way that we try to understand events, says Adam Waytz at Northwestern University in Illinois. So we might think that a spirit lies behind a storm or that a demon is causing us to get ill – rather than acknowledging that we have no control over the matter; and if a branch is tapping on your window, you might be more inclined to imagine that it is a ghost sending you a message. “We create beliefs in ghosts, because we don’t like believing that the universe is random,” says Waytz. Again, this seems to be more common when we feel less control over our lives.

Given these strange turns of the mind, might some people be naturally inclined to see hidden patterns and motives, and could this explain why they are more superstitious than others? It is a question that Tapani Riekki at the University of Helsinki in Finland has tried to answer for the last few years. He says that believers often welcome his research, since they genuinely can’t understand why others don’t share their worldview. “They say that ’I don’t see why other people don’t feel what I feel, or believe what I believe’,” he says.

Hidden faces

Riekki recently asked sceptics and believers to view simple animations of moving shapes, while lying in a brain scanner. He found paranormal believers were more likely to see some kind of intention behind the movements – as if the shapes were playing a game of “tag”, say – and this was reflected in greater brain activity in the regions normally associated with “theory of mind” and understanding others’ motives. Riekki has also found that people who believe in the supernatural are more likely to see hidden faces in everyday photos – a finding confirmed by another team at the University of Amsterdam, who showed that paranormal believers are more likely to imagine that they had seen a walking figure in random light displays.

(Thinkstock)
(Thinkstock)

Added to this, Riekki has found that believers may have weaker cognitive “inhibition”, compared to sceptics. That’s the skill that allows you to quash unwanted thoughts, so perhaps we are all spooked by strange coincidences and patterns from time to time, but sceptics are better at pushing them aside. Riekki gives the example of someone who is thinking about their mother, only for her to call two minutes later. “Is it just that sceptics can laugh and say it is just coincidence, and then think of something else?” he wonders. Significantly, another paper reported that paranormal believers also tend to have greater confidence in their decisions, even when they are based on ambiguous information. So once they have latched onto the belief, you might be less likely to let it go.

Even so, most researchers agree that sceptics shouldn’t be too critical of people who harbour these beliefs. After all, one study has found that various superstitions can boost your performance in a range of skills. In one trial, bringing their favourite lucky charm into a memory test significantly improved subjects’ recall, since it seemed to increase their confidence in their own abilities. Another experiment tested the subjects’ golf putting ability. Telling them that they were using a “lucky” ball meant they were more likely to score than those simply using any old ball. Even something as simple as saying “break a leg” or “I’ll keep my fingers for you” improved the participants’ motor dexterity and their ability to solve anagrams.

And even if you think you are immune, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of suggestion. Michael Nees at the Lafayette College in Pennsylvania recently asked a group of students to listen to sound recordings from US ghost-hunting shows. Subtly priming the volunteers with the thought that they were involved in a paranormal study increased the number of voices they reported hearing in the fuzzy recordings – despite the fact that they mostly reported being sceptics. It seems that the merest expectation of hearing something spooky can set your mind whirring.

(Rachel Adams/Flickr/CC BY-ND-2.0)
(Rachel Adams/Flickr/CC BY-ND-2.0)

Whitson’s research, meanwhile, shows how easy it is for us all to imagine strange happenings when we feel unsettled. Her latest experiment found that even priming someone with a feeling of hope – normally considered a positive emotion – can still increase people’s belief in the supernatural, or conspiracy theories. The reason, she says, is that hope is still full of uncertainty; it makes you question the future, compared to a feeling like anger where you might be surer of your righteousness.

And if you tell yourself that you have reasoned yourself out of superstitions and ghost stories, you might still harbour other beliefs that are equally fanciful, she says. It could be a full blown conspiracy theory about the government, or just suspicions that your colleagues are ganging up on you, based on a few spurious comments.

We can perhaps see the brain’s ability to “spot” illusory patterns in the response to the Ebola epidemic – such as the emergence of folk remedies (including the belief that drinking salt water is a cure), fears in the West that it will spread through air travel, and theories that it was created by industrialised governments.

“It’s easy to think of yourself as the one holding the rational cards, but it’s wiser to understand that every one of us are going to be prone to those mistakes when we feel like we are lacking control,” says Whitson. “We should all be ready to evaluate our assumptions more thoughtfully.” As Churchill, Turing and Conan Doyle showed us, even the most astute minds can be given to fancy from time to time.

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Metaphysics & Psychology

Why do people see the same dreams before they die?

Specialists of the American Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo have been observing patients for 10 years and made a rather intriguing discovery: it turns out that shortly before death, people begin to have the same dreams.

People who have undergone so-called clinical death, that is, a reversible stage of death, which is a kind of transition period between life and biological death, often talk about strange visions. As a rule, their whole life flashes before their eyes, after which they find themselves in a dark tunnel, which ends with a bright light, and some even meet long-dead relatives.

However, a 10-year study by doctors at the Buffalo Hospice and Palliative Care Center led by Christopher Kerr shows that three weeks before death, people begin to have strange visions – the same dreams. Observing more than 13 thousand dying patients during this time, experts have found that 88% of people have incredibly vivid dreams on the eve of their death.

According to patients, in 72% of cases in a dream they communicated with deceased relatives and friends, while experiencing warm feelings. 59% of patients in their last dreams were packing their suitcases or buying tickets – in general, they were going on their last journey. Some were already on the train or on the plane, and sometimes they also found long-dead relatives next to them, with whom they joyfully communicated.

29% of patients also saw their relatives and friends in a dream, but exclusively alive. Finally, 28% observed in their dying dreams various memories from their passing life – certain events that left a pleasant impression. The exception was dying children: most often they dreamed about the deceased pets they recognized. Adults also dreamed, but their little patients could not remember.

Mysterious dreams begin about 10-11 weeks before death, and in 3 weeks their frequency increased rapidly, and the dreams became brighter. Unfortunately, Christopher Kerr and his team cannot explain this phenomenon. Perhaps, on the eve of death, some changes begin to occur in the brain that lead to the appearance of such dreams. One thing is clear: it calms people down and reduces the fear of imminent death.

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Metaphysics & Psychology

Wigner’s paradox: what you need to know about the duality of reality?

Quantum mechanics is weird and contrary to common sense. A 2019 study showed that the outcomes of various processes in the quantum world depend on the observer. Back in the 1960s. Eugene Wigner, an American physicist of Hungarian origin, complicated the famous thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat, in which the cat is trapped in a box with poison that is released when a radioactive atom decays. 

Radioactivity is a quantum process, so the story goes that the atom in the box both disintegrated and did not disintegrate at the same time, leaving the unfortunate animal suspended between life and death – the so-called quantum superposition. But how does it feel to be alive and dead at the same time?

Quirks of Quantum Mechanics – Observer Observer

Wigner’s paradox is a complicated experiment of Schrödinger’s cat. Wigner introduced the category of “friends” whereby the cat in the box remains alive.

Quantum paradox

Imagine a person trapped in a laboratory and measuring a quantum system. Wigner argued that it is absurd to say that he exists in superposition (since he simultaneously sees and does not see the decay of an atom) while the laboratory door is closed. Thought experiment shows that things can get very strange if an observer is watching observers.

Quantum physicist at Griffith University in Brisbane (Australia) Nora Tishler and her colleagues conducted a version of Wigner’s experiment, combining a classical thought experiment with another quantum theory – quantum entanglement – a phenomenon that binds particles over huge distances. The researchers also came up with a new theorem that places the strongest constraints on the fundamental nature of reality. The work was published in the journal Nature Physics.

Scientific American quotes theoretical physicist Ephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the study, that the new work is “an important step forward in experimental metaphysics.”

As long as a quantum system is not observed, it does not necessarily have certain properties.

Quantum probability

Until the 1920s, physicists predicted experimental results with confidence. But quantum theory seems to be inherently probabilistic: as long as the properties of a system are not measured, they can span a myriad of values. This superposition only collapses into one state when observing the system, and physicists cannot accurately predict what this state will be. Wigner held the then popular view that consciousness somehow causes the collapse of the superposition. Thus, his hypothetical friend will determine the outcome when he or she takes measurements – and Wigner will never see him or her in superposition.

Since then, this view has gone out of style. “People who study the basics of quantum mechanics are quick to dismiss Wigner’s view as ghostly and vague because it makes observers special,” says David Chalmers, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at New York University. Most physicists today agree that inanimate objects can bring quantum systems out of superposition through a process known as decoherence.

Of course, researchers trying to manipulate complex quantum superpositions in the laboratory may find their hard work being destroyed by fast air particles colliding with their systems. Therefore, they test at ultra-short temperatures and try to isolate the apparatus from vibrations.

Note that several competing interpretations have emerged over the past decades, the most exotic of which is the “many worlds” view that whenever you make a quantum measurement, reality collapses, creating parallel universes. Thus, Wigner’s friend would split into two copies and could actually measure being in superposition outside the laboratory.

An alternative “Bohm” theory (named after physicist David Bohm) states that, at a fundamental level, quantum systems do have certain properties; we simply do not know enough about these systems to accurately predict their behavior. Another intriguing interpretation is called retrocausality. According to her, events in the future affect the past.

The problem is that each interpretation is equally good or bad at predicting the results of quantum tests, so the choice between them is a matter of taste. Nobody knows what this solution is. We don’t even know if the list of possible solutions we have is exhaustive.


Quantum physics is like magic

Other models, called collapse theories, do provide testable predictions. These models rely on a mechanism that causes a quantum system to collapse when it gets too large, while also explaining why cats, humans, and other macroscopic objects cannot be in superposition. Experiments are underway to find signatures of such collapses, but so far researchers have not found anything. Quantum physicists are also putting ever larger objects in a superposition: in 2019, a team in Vienna reported that it was doing this with a molecule of 2,000 atoms.

Most quantum interpretations state that there is no reason why these oversized superposition efforts should not go on forever, suggesting that researchers can design correct experiments in pristine laboratory environments to avoid decoherence.

Collapse theories, however, claim that the limit will be reached one day, no matter how carefully the experiments are prepared.

Observer observer

Tischler and her colleagues were inspired by a new wave of theoretical and experimental work that explored the role of the observer in quantum theory, introducing confusion into the classic Wigner experiment. Suppose you take two particles of light or photons that are polarized in such a way that they can vibrate horizontally or vertically. Photons can also be placed in a superposition vibrating both horizontally and vertically at the same time, just like Schrödinger’s paradoxical Cat can be both alive and dead – but exactly before it is watched.

In general, the researchers once again confirm that quantum physics is akin to magic.

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Metaphysics & Psychology

Scientists have created a device that can make dreams lucid

According to statistics, more than eighty percent of people at least once realized themselves in a dream, that is, they understood that they were sleeping. There are various practices of lucid dreaming in the world that allow a person to achieve the ability to control the subconscious, which works in a dream, and through it – radically change his life. All this is difficult and, moreover, unsafe. 

But there are people who are naturally endowed with the gift of lucid dreams, and some of them can even travel through dreams through parallel worlds in which their counterparts live – there is such evidence, we don’t know how true they are …

Photos from open sources

As for the official science, it considers dreams only as a rest of a person (any animal), as a result of which the strength lost during the day is restored. However, the world of dreams is too fantastic for such a narrow materialistic understanding. 

In addition, dreams, as people have noticed since ancient times, are associated not only with our past (memories), but also with the future (prophetic dreams).  The sages have always argued that managing dreams is the key to managing your health, destiny and your life in general.

Photos from open sources

Senoi – a tribe that knows how to control dreams

Even more interesting is that there is a tribe in the world – the Senoi, living in Malaysia, in its most impassable mountain jungle, which does not separate a person’s real life from his dreams. Senoi believe that a person has two souls: one lives in this world, and the other in the world of dreams. Both the one and the other world, according to the Senoi, is real, and that these realities are interconnected. 

Kylton Stewart, one of the researchers of this tribe, who lived among the Senoi for a certain time, proves that health, peacefulness and harmony in the social structure of this people is achieved precisely by the fact that they do not share dream and reality – this is one whole for them. 

Learning this understanding of the world order from birth, hay and hay see lucid dreams, do not forget anything about them, they know how to change everything for the better in dreams (from infancy, a special system of working with dreams is developed and maintained in a child).

Photos from open sources

For example, Stewart writes, in contrast to ordinary people, over the years, hay improves their dreams more and more, excluding any negativity, not to mention the nightmares so inherent in Europeans, thanks to which they achieve complete harmony in real life. All their songs, dances, ceremonies and even their clothes are all taken from dreams and brought to life.

Independent dream researchers have long struggled with this mystery. And the point is not even to understand what a dream is, but in the applied meaning of this secret of nature. It is important to find an opportunity to control dreams, that is, to come up with a mechanism that would easily (without tedious and often fruitless practices) allow a person to see lucid dreams and change something in them.

Dream manipulation device

And now scientists at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA) seem to have come close to creating a device that allows a person to manipulate their dreams. A team led by neuroscientist Adam Horowitz Haar has developed Dormio, an electronic device that allows you to control the first stage of sleep, when a person’s consciousness is in the so-called hypnagogic state (the borderline state between reality and deep sleep).

Dormio is a dream manipulation device that helps to form individual dream pictures rather than being aware of them and influencing the natural processes of the subconscious. It cannot yet be considered as a tool for lucid dreams, but this method can be successfully used, say, for training, solving some problems, and so on. 

Moreover, as the researchers at MIT assure, complete control over dreams is only a matter of time. And such control will allow solving many problems, primarily those associated with various mental illnesses of a person.

Photos from open sources

However, not all dream researchers were enthusiastic about the achievement of their American colleagues. In their opinion, an invasion of the holy of holies without a full understanding of what dreams are, can have the most sad consequences for a person, it is possible that for society as a whole.

It is no coincidence that in the practice of lucid dreaming, so much attention is paid to safety methods, and the same hay uses a unique system developed by many generations. 

By the way, lucid dreaming gurus argue that dreams cannot be approached from the standpoint of modern science, which constantly wants not to understand God, but to grab him by the beard. It doesn’t hurt to remember how it all ends (atomic bombs, epidemics bursting out of laboratories, widespread natural disasters, and so on).

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