Exploring the Unexplained

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I have always been fascinated by the paranormal, but the intensity of the supernatural spell I’ve been under for years did not become apparent to me until yesterday. Namely, I was perusing the old posts I’ve written on this site and realized that I may have an unhealthy tendency to gravitate toward the unexplained. See, for instance, last week’s post on aliens. Or the one from a few weeks before in which I discuss my nightly certainty that ghosts are about to “get me” (to borrow a phrase from childhood). Or my other post about aliens. And so on.

This isn’t a new thing, as anyone who witnessed my teenage enthusiasm for Fox Mulder will tell you. And it isn’t a me thing, either. A simple look at the rundown of occult-themed television shows from the last few years is enough to assume that we are a culture obsessed with the paranormal. Consider, as a sampling, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Most Haunted, Haunted History, Paranormal State, Ancient Aliens, Finding Bigfoot … and many, many more. We love this stuff. We love it so much someone wrote a book about it, in fact: Paranormal Obsession: America's Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits by Deonna Kell Sayed.

Why? In my last post I noted that “the human psyche seems primed always to believe that something is lurking in the nearest dark corner,” and that this didn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. It turns out there might be a solid biological foundation for this tendency.

A 2009 study conducted by researchers Kevin Foster and Hanan Kokko found that superstition – here defined simply as cause and effect erroneously linked – may serve a solid survival purpose. If superstition has a higher chance of promoting good among a species than bad, even if the cause does not usually cause the believed effect, then generally that belief will survive.

For example, a “superstition” that rustling grass means a lion could lead ancient hunters to head to a nearby cave. Then even if it were the wind, no harm has really been done; if it is a lion, the benefits are obvious. Similarly, thinking that eating a particular plant will cure a disease could go one of two ways: be harmful, in which case the behavior will be rooted out; or be benign to helpful, in which case the behavior will stay. (Even, it is important to note, if most of the time the plant does nothing.)

So superstitions are good for something. But nowadays a lot of our paranormal beliefs accomplish exactly nothing. Have they simply been allowed to remain because a belief in, say, aliens is not maladaptive? Perhaps. Perhaps the answer is as simple as that: until thinking you caught a glimpse of Nessie becomes more harmful to the human species than neutral, our tendency to go with our gut may just go nowhere.

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I think you have taken the Foster study out of context. As it is published it is a nice piece of mathematical exercise within theoretical evolution (i.e. the kind of thing scientists do when they have to publish something). There is nothing wrong with this type of science. However, it is doubtful that you can really take this very simple mathematical model and use it as an explanation for a presumably rather complex social phenomenon (such as superstition).

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