Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bruce M. Hood, Supersense - Why We Believe in the Unbelievable (2009)

This is another book where I suspect the editor or publisher, not the author, dictated the title, but maybe I am wrong. The term 'supersense' is used liberally throughout this volume. This is a silly term, which suggests that there is some additional sensory modality beyond those we are all familiar with, and suggests that it is "superior" to all other senses. I disagree with the suggestion. [Postscript, October 15, 2011: the paperback version of this book has been renamed -- The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs. A good choice.]

For humans, the most special sensory modality is vision, yet all the sensory modalities, both somatic (temperature, touch, pressure, pain, body position) and the five special senses (smell, hearing, taste, vision and balance) simultaneously provide important stimuli and convert energy into nervous impulses that are mapped in the brain at about the same time. And these different neuronal inputs, arriving initially in different areas of the brain, are subsequently joined in convergence zones in the brain, which integrate information arriving from the different sensory modalities that enables a unified experience of our environment rather than a series of fragmentary experiences. This is sometimes referred to as the "binding problem," whereby multisensory inputs are integrated in the brain to form a unified experience.

This concept of sensory experience is not what author Bruce Hood has in mind. For Hood, "supersense" is an "inclination that [our experiences, which are not substantiated by a body of reliable evidence] may be real." In this vein, "supersense" is derivative of what we have labeled "extrasensory perception" and is not a "sense" at all. What Hood is getting is what we refer to as instinct, intuition, and inference, all of which are derivative of the known sensory modalities and the brain's capacity to search out and recognize patterns that explain our experiences. In the course of searching out and trying to find patterns, we initially form beliefs about our experience. This belief-forming capability begins in our infancy, a time when we are not cognitively capable of explaining what we believe or why we believe it. Our minds are designed, writes Hood, " to see the world as organized, [and] we often detect patterns that are not really present."

The following passage highlights that intuition is at the foundation of the so-called "supersense": "There is good evidence that children naturally and spontaneously think about the unseen properties that govern the world. They infer forces to explain events they cannot directly see, understand that living things have life energy, and reason in terms of essence when thinking about the true nature of animals. And, of course, they begin to understand that other people have minds. These processes are not taught to children. They are reasoning, though it is not clear that they can necessarily reflect on why or how they re coming up with their decisions. That is why their reasoning is intuitive.***Intuition is often called a 'gut feeling.' Sometimes we get a 'vibe' when we sense a physical feeling of knowing . . .The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls this the somatic marker: it indicates the way emotions affect reasoning in a rapid and often unconscious way." Hood's point: a lot of our responses to what our sensory modalities experience is automatic and "unlearned." It is in our nature, therefore, that there will likely be a variance between what we believe and what is real.

Hood is not original in this way of thinking and the body of research that supports it. Paul Bloom's book, Descartes Baby, demonstrated that from a very early age children distinguish between physical states and mental states, making us "natural born dualists," and that we reason differently about the two states. And within the realm of mental states, children discern intentions, purpose, goals, and emotions in other animate objects. Children believe and recognize that other animate objects have "minds," and believe they can recognize intentions, purpose, goals and emotions in others: we can read minds. In a previous post (see September 18, 2009 post), the role of "mirror neurons" have been identified with our ability to "feel" the actions and perhaps the intentions of others. Numerous researchers, including Michael Gazzaniga (see September 27, 2009 post) have written about the neural mechanisms of nonconscious mimicry and emotional contagion (taking on the mood of others) that begins in early infancy --- particularly in the case of child and mother.

According to Hood, the intuitions of children include the belief that there are no random events or patterns, that events are caused by intention, that complexity is neither random nor spontaneous but a product of design, and that living things differ because of some essential, invisible property inside them. These intuitions "are fertile soil for creationism," concludes Hood. As children, we "infer structures where there may be none," and it is these inferences that give rise to supernatural beliefs. Natural selection is counter intuitive. As children grow older, they tend to categorize their experiences and "generate naive theories that explain the physical world, the living world, and ultimately the psychological world of other people. While children's naive theories are often correct, they can be wrong because the causes and mechanisms they are trying to reason about are invisible...When we misapply the property of one natural kind to another, we are thinking unnaturally. If we continue to believe it is true, then our thinking has become supernatural ...This is where the supersense comes from." From this point, what we call "animism" and "anthropomorphism" is a natural next step. We create mythological "gods" in our own image, and then we use our storytelling capability to say that "god" created us in god's image. At this point, culture takes over and reinforces what began as "naive theories." Children's misconceptions are intuitive and not taught, "but they feed into a cultural context to become folklore, the paranormal, and religion. We know that social environments are important in providing frameworks of belief, but they only exist in the first place because of the supersense."

Instinct, intuition, and inference are not culprits in this story. All are essential to human survival, and hence the neurobiological system that has evolved with our modern human mind is an evolutionary outcome that favors taking shortcuts, including adopting beliefs about things that might not be true. "Intuitive reasoning," Hood notes, "has the advantage in the race to influence our decision-making because it is so effortless, covert, and rapid." It consumes less energy, and without it our decision-making would be slower making it more likely that we humans might be someone else's lunch.

What is missing from Hood's account of how we come to believe that things that are not real are real is the mind's role in storytelling --- explaining beliefs in either fictional or non-fictional terms. This is something that is probably unique to humans, because it requires a language faculty. Hood acknowledges that "humans are compelled to understand the nature of the world around as part of the way our brains try to make sense of our experiences." But the closest Hood comes to discussing this subject is his discussion of free-will. We have the experience of making "conscious decisions" to undertake action, but brain research shows that the point in time when we think we have made a choice occurs after the event (action) has occurred, suggesting that the mind constructs a story that fits with a decision after they have been made. In Human (see September 27, 2009 post), Michael Gazzaniga writes that while "other animals and humans use observables to predict, it may be that humans alone try to explain." For Gazzaniga, this is the role of the left side of our brain, which acts as an interpreter of our conscious experience, which is "driven to generate explanations and hypotheses regardless of the circumstances." From studies of brain lesions, we know that the interpreter on the left side of the brain is only as good as the information it receives, and the outcome of its efforts to make sense of wacky incoming information can be a lot of "imaginative stories." Gazzaniga adds, "just because you can imagine something does not mean it true. You can imagine a unicorn, a satyr, and a talking mouse. Just because you believe or imagine that the mind and body are separate does not mean they are." So the structure of the human brain has either evolved or adapted to interpret and explain both the environment around it and its own subjective experiences. Language provides the faculty to convert interpretation into a story, which may be either true or false, but which become beliefs nevertheless.

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