Many People Seek A Source Of Mystery And Wonder In The World
It wasn't immediately obvious to Walter Semkiw that he was the reincarnation of John Adams. Adams was a lawyer and rabble-rouser who helped overthrow a government; Semkiw is a doctor who has never so much as challenged a parking ticket. The second president was balding and wore a powdered wig; Semkiw has a full head of hair. But in 1984, a psychic told the then medical resident and psychiatrist-in-training that he is the reincarnation of a major figure of the Revolution, possibly Adams. Once Semkiw got over his skepticism—as a student of the human mind, he was of course familiar with "how people get misled and believe something that might not be true," he recalls—he wasn't going to let superficial dissimilarities dissuade him so easily. As he researched Adams's life, Semkiw began finding many tantalizing details. For instance, Adams described his handwriting as "tight-fisted and concise"—"just like mine," Semkiw realized. He also saw an echo of himself in Adams's dedication to the cause of independence from England. "I can be very passionate," Semkiw says. The details accumulated and, after much deliberation, Semkiw went with his scientific side, dismissing the reincarnation idea.
But one day in 1995, when Semkiw was the medical director for Unocal 76, the oil company, he heard a voice in his head intoning, "Study the life of Adams!" Now he found details much more telling than those silly coincidences he had learned a dozen years earlier. He looked quite a bit like the second president, Semkiw realized. Adams's description of parishioners in church pews as resembling rows of cabbages was "something I would have said," Semkiw realized. "We are both very visual." And surely it was telling that Unocal's slogan was "the spirit of '76." It was all so persuasive, thought Semkiw, who is now a doctor at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group in California, that as a man of science and reason whose work requires him to critically evaluate empirical evidence, he had to accept that he was Adams reincarnated.
Perhaps you don't believe that Semkiw is the reincarnation of John Adams. Or that playwright August Wilson is the reincarnation of Shakespeare, or George W. Bush the reincarnation of Daniel Morgan, a colonel in the American Revolution who was known for his "awkward speech" and "coarse manners." But if you don't believe in reincarnation, then the odds are that you have at least felt a ghostly presence behind you in an "empty" house. Or that you have heard loved ones speak to you after they passed away. Or that you have a lucky shirt. Or that you can tell when a certain person is about to text you, or when someone unseen is looking at you. For if you have never had a paranormal experience such as these, and believe in none of the things that science says do not exist except as tricks played on the gullible or—as neuroscientists are now beginning to see—by the normal workings of the mind carried to an extreme, well, then you are in a lonely minority.
If you take the word "normal" as characteristic of the norm or majority, then it is the superstitious and those who believe in ESP, ghosts and psychic phenomena who are normal. Most scientists and skeptics roll their eyes at such sleight of word, asserting that belief in anything for which there is no empirical evidence is a sign of mental pathology and not normalcy. But a growing number of researchers, in fields such as evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, are taking such beliefs seriously in one important sense: as a window into the workings of the human mind. The studies are an outgrowth of research on religious faith, a (nearly) human universal, and are turning out to be useful for explaining fringe beliefs, too. The emerging consensus is that belief in the supernatural seems to arise from the same mental processes that underlie everyday reasoning and perception. But while the belief in ghosts, past lives, the ability of the mind to move matter and the like originate in normal mental processes.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, Semkiw is driven by a what-if optimism. If only people could accept reincarnation, he believes, Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites might stop fighting (since they might be killing someone who was once one of them). He is dismissive of the idea that reincarnation has not been empirically proved. That was the status of everything science has since proved, be it the ability of atoms to vibrate in synchrony (the basis of the laser) or of mold to cure once-lethal infections (penicillin). Dedicated to the empirical method, Semkiw believes the world is on the brink of "a science of spirituality," he says. "I don't know how you can't believe in reincarnation. All it takes is an open mind."
On that, he is in agreement with researchers who study the processes of mind and brain that underlie belief. As scientists began studying belief in the paranormal, it quickly became clear that belief requires an open mind—one not bound by the evidence of the senses, but in which emotions such as hope and despair can trump that evidence. Consider the Tichborne affair. In 1854, Sir Roger Tichborne, age 25, was reported lost at sea off the coast of Brazil. His inconsolable mother refused to accept that her son was dead. Twelve years later a man from Wagga Wagga, in New South Wales, Australia, got in touch with her. He claimed to be Sir Roger, so Lady Tichborne immediately sent him money to sail to England. When the claimant arrived, he turned out to be grossly obese, E.J. Wagner recounts in her 2006 book "The Science of Sherlock Holmes." Sir Roger had been very thin. Sir Roger had had tattoos on his arm. The claimant had none. He did, however, have a birthmark on his torso; Sir Roger had not. Although Sir Roger's eyes had been blue, the claimant's were brown. Lady Tichborne nevertheless joyfully proclaimed the claimant her son and granted him £1,000 per annum. Lawsuits eventually established that the claimant was an impostor.
The pervasiveness of belief in the supernatural and paranormal may seem odd in an age of science. But ours is also an age of anxiety, a time of economic distress and social anomie, as denizens of a mobile society are repeatedly uprooted from family and friends. Historically, such times have been marked by a surge in belief in astrology, ESP and other paranormal phenomena, spurred in part by a desperate yearning to feel a sense of control in a world spinning out of control.
As science replaces the supernatural with the natural, explaining everything from thunder and lightning to the formation of planets, many people seek another source of mystery and wonder in the world. People can get that from belief in several paranormal phenomena, but none more so than thinking they were abducted by aliens. Numerous studies have found that abductees are not suffering from any known mental illness. They are unusually prone to false memories, and tend to be creative, fantasy-prone and imaginative. But so are lots of people who have never met a little green man.
The scientific principle that the simplest explanation is most likely to be right is, well, alien to abductees. We are more irrational than we are rational; emotions drive voting behavior more strongly than analysis of candidates' records and positions does. The universal human need to find meaning and purpose in life is stronger and more basic than any attachment to empiricism, logic or objective reality.
A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, a region toward the top and rear of the brain, for instance, distinguishes where your body ends and the material world begins. Without it, you couldn't navigate through a door frame. But other areas of the brain, including the thinking regions in the frontal lobes, sometimes send "turn off!" signals to this structure, such as when we are falling asleep or when we feel physical communion with another person (that's a euphemism for sex). During intense prayer or meditation, brain-imaging studies show, the structure is also especially quiet. Unable to find the dividing line between self and world, the brain adapts by experiencing a sense of holism and connectedness. You feel a part of something larger than yourself. This ability to shut off the sense of where you end and the world begins, then, may promote other beliefs that bring a sense of connection, even if they involve alien kidnappers.
A more common experience is to see patterns in coincidences. You think about the girl at the party last Saturday and—bam!—she calls you. You think about the girl who chatted you up in class—and never hear from her. Guess which experience you remember? Thanks to the psychological glitch called confirmatory bias, the mind better recalls events and experiences that validate what we believe than those that refute those beliefs. But why? Why do we remember the times we thought of someone just before she texted us and forget all the times we had no such premonition? When the mind was evolving, failing to make an association (snakes with rattles are to be avoided) could get you killed, while making a false association (dancing will make it rain) mostly just wasted time.
The brain also evolved to recoil from danger, and the most frequent sources of danger back in the Stone Age were not guns and cars but saber-toothed tigers and other living things. There is a clear survival advantage to imputing aliveness and asking questions later. That's why, during human evolution, our ancestors developed what is called a hypersensitive agency-detection device. Developing ideas about ghosts and spirits is simply a derivative of this hypersensitivity to the possibility" that a living being is present, and too bad if it also produces the occasional (or even frequent) false positives.
The belief that minds are not bound to bodies, and therefore that ghosts and other spirits exist here in the physical world, reflects a deep dualism in the human psyche. All of which raises a question. If the brain is wired so as to make belief in the paranormal seemingly inevitable, why are there any skeptics? And not just "any," but more assertive, activist ones.
Their more aggressive attitude provides a sense of mission and community that skeptics, no less than believers, crave. It takes effort to resist the allure of belief, with its promise of fellowship, community and comfort in the face of mortality and a pointless, uncaring universe. There must be compensating rewards. One such compensation, it is fair to say, is a feeling of intellectual superiority. It is rewarding to look at the vast hordes of believers, conclude that they are idiots and delight in the fact that you aren't. Another is that skeptics believe, or at least hope, that they can achieve at least one thing that believers seek, but without abandoning their principles. Skeptics, no less than believers, think it would be wonderful if we could speak to dead loved ones, or if we ourselves never died.
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