Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Apophenia, Pareidolia, and Paranormal Beliefs

I talk about apophenia and pareidolia a lot here on Augoeides when evaluating claims of the paranormal. The two concepts are important because while legitimately paranormal events do happen, mistaking normal events for paranormal ones is far more common. You know, because if paranormal events were commonplace, they wouldn't be "paranormal" at all in any meaningful sense. Pareidolia refers to the natural human tendency to perceive random or semi-random stimuli as clear images, like when people see the face of Jesus on a piece of toast. Aphophenia describes the process by which our minds create and assign meaning to random or semi-random events. These two phenomena are responsible for most of the cases out there where normal events are mistaken for paranormal ones. In fact, a new study conducted by Tapani Riekki at the University of Helsinki in Finland has found that people who believe in the paranormal tend to have a higher capacity for both of these phenomena.

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.

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.

The fundamental problem that I have with the linked article is that to my way of thinking, it asks the wrong questions. It really should not be difficult at all to see that paranormal believers are believer because of their own direct experiences with what they consider paranormal events. Riekki's research entirely supports this notion - a person who mistakenly identifies more normal events as paranormal is pretty much by definition going to experience more "paranormal" events. From my perspective as a magician, the real question should be how we can train our minds to discern genuine paranormal events from misidentified ones. The article doesn't even touch on that, because it assumes at the outset that all paranormal experiences are the result of misinterpretation - since OBVIOUSLY nothing paranormal really exists. Of course, we practicing magicians beg to differ.

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