Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Papi: What do you believe in?

I first met professor Bruce Hood as my second year lecturer on developmental psychology. I was nice to see him again as the host of the Manipulating Biologies talk, at the Grant Bradley Gallery. I was glad when he said that he’d be happy to give me a short interview.

YC: You recently wrote a book about the supernatural and how that affects people; the book’s conclusion was that believing in supernatural is good for us.

BH: Yeah, it’s a book about where these beliefs come from. We often assume that our beliefs come from our parents or culture, so we indoctrinate people to believe things. That’s true to a certain extent, but there is a whole host of beliefs that seem to emerge spontaneously in all of us. And of course, we also have to ask why do many cultures share the same sorts of beliefs, which suggest that they are universals.

So, I am interested in the origin of these universal beliefs and I happen to think that they may be spontaneous and natural occurring, if you like byproducts of the way our brains are designed to infer meaning in the world. So, I work on origins of supernatural beliefs. I study children’s assumptions; and what we find is that they reason about all manner of things, and often assume the presence of invisible forces or energies or patterns, which don’t exist. And when you look at them more clearly you can see really the rudiments of what become later adult supernatural beliefs. So, to give you an example children look at the natural world and they see it seems to be order and structure, so naturally infer that there must be someone who designed it, which could obviously be the case of a god or a creator. They also think that the mind is separate to the body, so again that could also be the basis for manner beliefs you know for telepathy and the ability of the mind. So, I am interested in the science of belief and where it comes from.

YC: So why is it good for us to actually have supernatural beliefs?

BH: It’s both good and inevitable. The good side of it I’ll say and not everything is good, because some beliefs obviously are used and abused. Some people will claim that’s the case of religion. But I tend not to talk about religion because I think those are political issues. But you know for example, some people will engage in remedies that they think will help them when in fact they’re either non-effectual or they’re actually dangerous. So, homeopathy is something, which has no active ingredient but it works because of the power of placebo, which is the belief that if you do something you’ll get better. Likewise, superstitions also work because if you think you can do something about your environment or control an outcome then you generally do better. And that’s why you find superstitions amongst those people who are faced with potential threat in their job and/or in situations where they don’t have much control. If they engage in a ritual or some superstitious behaviour they generally perform better. If you stop them or thwart them doing their ritual then they feel the loss of control and therefore feel stress. So, those are the sorts of good aspects of it, but I also think they are inevitable because as I said a bit earlier the natural byproduct of trying to understand your world is to assume there are all these things operating. The obvious experiment that we can’t do is to raise children in isolation on an island; my prediction would be that given enough time they too create all the gods, all the rituals and all the superstitions, which currently exist in our society today.

If you want to know more about professor Hood, then you should check his blog.

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