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7/9/09

Michael Shermer: Why People Believe Weird Things

Michael Shermer was once a born-again Christian. Now he is a skeptic toward religion and anything that does not pass the test of empirical reason. In short, he either waits for proof or has made up his mind. His book is Why People Believe Weird Things. Here are a few notes from his book along with my own interpolations:

  • Sleep Paralysis. Waking up during a dream causes the dream to leak into consciousness even while you are conscious. It immobilizes your body, makes it rigid. It causes feelings of helplessness, weird visions. Long ago, I woke up and apparently a dream had entered my conscious mind, although I was unaware that was what happened. Awake, I heard a voice that said, "You have only a few weeks, maybe months, to live." Without an understanding of sleep paralysis, I was, shall we say, upset. Yet here I am all these years later.

  • In a recent study, feelings of loneliness were induced in people by a question which caused them to feel they would have few friends and would be isolated in middle age. After this ruse they were more likely to say they believed in ghosts, angels, the devil, God. Those told they would have friends in mid age were less likely to do so. The study was guided by Nicholas Epley, University of Chicago.

  • Neurons in the superior parietal lobe provide a sense of where the body ends and the world begins. Alter these neurons by drugs, meditation, or other means and one's sense of body-boundary changes.

  • Regions in the brain that become active when we imagine seeing or hearing something are the same regions active when we really do see or hear. This holds true for schizophrenics and normal people. The schizophrenic visual cortex becomes active when hallucinating. Normal people see or hear when intensely thinking about seeing or hearing.

  • Confirmation bias. The mind is better at recalling what validates that which we believe as distinct from that which refutes it. The behavior of Confirmation Bias is sometimes called Tolstoy Syndrome, after Leo Tolstoy who wrote this: "I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life."

  • At a British Association Festival of Science, Professor Bruce Hood of Bristol University, conducted an experiment. It is described this way: "Professor Hood asked members of the festival audience if they were prepared to try on an old fashioned blue cardigan in return for a £10 reward. After receiving no shortage of volunteers, he then told the volunteers that the cardigan used to belong to Fred West, the mass murderer. On hearing this, most of the volunteers put their hands down. Though a few did try it on, others moved away from them.

    In fact, the cardigan had not belonged to Fred West. The experiment demonstrated that the belief that even the most rational of people can be made to feel uncomfortable by a physical object associated with evil.

    Shermer points out that this suggests people think evil is physical. There is a spiritualist in people that thinks evil can transfer to the physical. Shermer suggests that our ancestors found it appropriate to assume a rock formation was a bear until they could prove otherwise.

  • Shermer states that within us is a deep dualism. We think of our essence as mental and our body as physical. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things
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