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SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 7, 2009
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A handful of recent books disparaging religion by atheists such as Richard Dawkins have largely put the blame on culture for humanity’s widespread unscientific beliefs. Yet what if the greatest influence on our supernatural convictions is the built-in wiring of our brains? Hood is an internationally renowned neuroscientist who has developed a revolutionary new theory to explain why, in the face of dubious evidence, humans so readily put their faith in supernatural forces. Dubbed supersense, Hood’s theory traces religious inclinations to how the brain processes information: a hardwired tool kit for making sense of the world that begins in childhood. In 10 engaging and informative chapters with titles like “Could You Wear a Killer’s Cardigan?” and “Would You Let Your Wife Sleep with Robert Redford?” Hood lays out the evidence for the mind’s penchant for seeing patterns in disconnected events and cultivating sacred values that bind humans together. Hood’s treatise provides a much-needed counterbalance to hard-core skeptics by arguing that supersense, while not exactly grounded in rationality, ultimately gives our lives meaning. --Carl Hays
In an account chock full of real-world examples reinforced by experimental research, Hood’s marvelous book is an important contribution to the psychological literature that is revealing the actuality of our very irrational human nature. (Science )
[A] fascinating, timely and important book. . . . Hood’s presentation of the science behind our supersense is crystal clear and utterly engaging. (New Scientist )
An intriguing look at a feature of the human mind that is subtle in its operation but profound in its consequences. (Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought )
Reading SuperSense is like having lunch with your favorite professor--the conversation spans religion, biology, psychology, philosophy, and early childhood development. One thing is for sure, you’ll never see the world in the same way again. (Ori Brafman, New York Times bestselling author of Sway )
In recent years, there has been a lot written about religion, superstition, and faith, but there has never been a book like this. . . SuperSense is a joy to read--beautifully written, deeply clever and funny, replete with brilliant insights and observations. (Paul BloomProfessor, Department of Psychology, Yale University Author of "Descartes' Baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human" )
Dr. Hood, a world-class scholar in the field of cognitive science, explains the many weird and wonderful ways that we humans naturally view the world as ruled by supernatural phenomena. Bruce Hood’s SuperSense is sensational. (Susan A. GelmanSusan A. GelmanSusan A. Gelman, author of The Essential Child )
Read this beautifully written book, and you will lose some childhood innocence about how the world works. But, it will leave you wiser about yourself, and what it is to be human. (Guy Claxton, author of Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less )
Magical thinking is a defining feature of the human mind – the source of all that is sublime and absurd about our species. In this timely exploration of the psychology of irrational belief Bruce Hood pulls off the rare feat of being both authoritative and wonderfully entertaining. Brilliant. (Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology )
A compelling account of how beliefs in the supernatural world spring from the natural way our minds make sense of our experiences. (Daniel M. Wegner, Harvard Professor of Psychology, author of The Illusion of Conscious Will )
If we understood our own irrationality, and why so many people believe in ghosts, spirits, and invisible powers, then we might be able to improve the way we think. With quirkily fun examples and fascinating experiments Bruce Hood explains why we can’t always escape our Supersense. (Dr. Susan Blackmore, author of Conversations on Consciousness )
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"SuperSense" is the engaging, fascinating book about the origins of supernatural beliefs, why they are so common, and why they may be so difficult to get rid of. It's a popular science book that is a lot to fun to read and ultimately enlightening. Dr. Bruce Hood uses modern psychology, cognitive neuroscience and an entertaining prose to entertain the masses in this wonderful and at times enthralling read. This 320-page book is composed of the following ten chapters: 1. What Secret Do John McEnroe and David Beckham Share?, 2. Could You Wear a Killer's Cardigan?, 3. Who Created Creationism?, 4. Blooming, Bussing Babies, 5. Mind Reading, 6. Freak Accidents, 7. Would You Willingly Receive a Heart Transplant from a Murderer?, 8. Why Do Traveling Salesman Sleep with Teddy Bears?, 9. The Biology of Belief, and 10. Would You Let Your Wife Sleep with Robert Redford?
1. Fascinating topic in the hands of a master storyteller.
2. Great popular science book that is a treat to read while educational at the same time. The author does a wonderful job of intermixing sound science with an interesting narrative, and a bit of humor too for good measure.
3. Thought-provoking questions and answers based on sound science.
4. Neuroscience and psychology made fun.
5. Supersense defined. Religion, paranormal activity, and wishful thinking; the three points on a continuum of supernatural thinking.
6. So many great examples and some bordering on the bizarre but always interesting. Hood "exposes a wide range of human beliefs and behavior that go beyond traditional notions of the supernatural".
7. Great quotes abound, "Supernatural beliefs are a product of natural thinking".
8. A lot of the studies depicted in this book have to do with child development and cognitive neuroscience, one of the author's areas of expertise.
9. So much wisdom in one book. "We either accept ideas or reject them, but seldom do we consider why".
10. One of the most compelling themes in this book is why it is easier for people to believe in the supernatural over natural explanations. Mind design and natural selection is our designer.
11. The beliefs behind superstitious practices. Vegas will never be the same.
12. Interesting looks at faulty reasoning. The reliance of unconscious inferences.
13. Interesting studies of the brain are found throughout this fascinating book. The things that make us human.
14. In defense of science..."the bedrock of our knowledge and wisdom". The difference between supernatural and scientific beliefs. The contrast between creationist and the scientific theory of evolution.
15. An absorbing look at religion, "All religions are based on supernatural beliefs, but not all supernatural beliefs are based on religion". The number one reason why people believe in the supernatural.
16. Evolution it does a species good.
17. Interesting look at how we generate beliefs. Many fascinating studies involving newborns and children.
18. Mind reading...theory of mind. The intentional stance. The chemicals involved oxytocin as an example. The illusion of free will and the soul. Great stuff!
19. Homeopathy the supernatural quackery to real medicine.
20. Bizarre beliefs a fascinating look.
21. Essential reasoning, psychological essentialism. So many great examples, some involving art.
22. Interesting look at bizarre disorders.
23. The biology of belief. Common supersenses like the sense of being stared at. Confirmation bias.
24. Neurotransmitter systems.
25. The future of supernatural beliefs.
1. Links did not work.
2. This book will cause cognitive dissonance to most likely theists.
3. Having to buy extra copies for relatives and friends.
In summary, I really enjoyed this book. There are certain books I connect better than others and this is one of them. A great mix of psychology, neuroscience, evolution and fascinating cases that makes this book a joy to read. This is an excellent popular science book that addresses supernatural beliefs and it did so to my satisfaction. I highly recommend it!
Further suggestions: "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior" by by Leonard Mlodinow, "Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization" by Stephen Cave, "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths" by Michael Shermer, "The Scientific American Brave New Brain: How Neuroscience, Brain-Machine Interfaces, Neuroimaging, Psychopharmacology, Epigenetics, the Internet, and ... and Enhancing the Future of Mental Power" by Judith Horstman, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker, "Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain?" and "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique", by Michael S. Gazzaniga, "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Laurence Tancredi, "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland, "Paranormality" by Richard Wiseman, "The Myth of Free Will, Revised & Expanded Edition" by Cris Evatt, and "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard.
I don't know why this should be, to be honest. I mean, they're just books, right? Paper and ink that anyone can buy. And not even special books - first edition, autor-signed, given to me by my beloved grandmother on her deathbed. I would be hard-pressed to throw away even bad books. Mein Kampf, Dianetics, A Series of Unfortunate Events - I would save even these from the trashpile. Not because they're worth reading, but because they're books.
I'm not a squishy, sentimental man, either. I can tell dead baby jokes without flinching. I've participated in the burning of an American Flag. I've flipped off the White House (it was the Bush era - I couldn't NOT flip it off), and if you give me a photo of the Pope, I'm pretty sure I can tear it up on live TV.
So what is it about these mass-produced blocks of paper that instills in me such reverence? This question is part of what Bruce Hood discusses in his book Supersense, appropriately subtitled, "Why we believe in the unbelievable."
Hood is a psychologist by trade, and this book is an investigation into why we persistently believe in things for which we have no evidence. This can range from religious adherence and the firm belief in things like "holiness" and "sinfulness" all the way to haunted houses, superstitious behavior, and the belief that evil acts can somehow "taint" a physical object. In one demonstration that he refers to throughout the book, Hood offers a cardigan to his audience. It's a nice enough sweater, perhaps a little out of date, but clean and it looks comfortable. It's the kind of cardigan you might wear on a chilly autumn evening and think nothing of it.
Then Hood tells the audience that the sweater belonged to Fred West. For those of us who are not from England, Fred West is one of the most notorious serial killers of the last century. Over a span of twenty years, he and his wife tortured, raped and murdered at least twelve girls, two of whom were their own daughters. They're very well-known in England, and as soon as people found out that the nice comfortable cardigan had belonged to Fred West, no one wanted to touch it, much less put it on. Even though there's no rational basis to believe so, many people believed that there was some kind of contamination linked to the sweater, and feared that Fred West's evil would somehow transfer to them.
As someone who tries to be rational as much as possible, I have found myself wondering why I hold on to beliefs that I know are fundamentally irrational. I wonder it even more when I watch the news or surf the internet and see how many people believe in things like "healing energy," homeopathy, guardian angels, magic spells and the like. "What century are we living in?" I ask myself as I curl up into a ball and weep. The Enlightenment was only two hundred years ago - why are we backsliding?
Thinkers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins believe that this kind of fundamental irrationality is a learned trait. Parents pass it on to children, who then pass it on to theirs. Dawkins even goes so far as to consider bringing your child to church to be "child abuse," and believe that if only we can break the chain of superstition, a new Age of Reason will emerge.
Hood disagrees, and he makes a pretty compelling case. He doesn't argue for the existence of the supernatural at all in this book, but rather the sense of the supernatural - the Supersense, as he calls it. This is the feeling that someone is watching us, the belief that one object is somehow more "special" than another, identical object. It is the reason we plead with our computers when they don't work, why we anthropomorphise so many things is our world, and why we revere the remains of saints and shun the sweaters of murderers. It is a sense that there should be a supernatural world out there, even if we can't prove it.
Hood believes that the origin of this supersense is in the way our early minds develop as infants. In that very early stage of life, we try to make sense of the world as best we can. Babies are little scientists, testing reality against their observations again and again, and coming up with hypotheses about how the world should work. This need to understand the world is hard-wired into our brains as part of our "mind design," and not only can we never get rid of it, it may be essential to our development into fully-formed human beings.
By testing children and how they observe the world, Hood tries to see how the mind develops from birth onwards, without the years of cultural indoctrination that Dawkins and those of similar opinion decry. These tests show how children expect reality to behave, and what happens when their expectations don't match their observations. He looks at how children imbue the world with life and purpose - the Sun, always smiling in children's drawings, exists to give us light, trees to shade us and the grass is there for us to play on. This endowment of purpose, or telos, if we're going to be philosophical and pompous, is something we continue to do even into adulthood.
The more we learn about the world, the more we find out that it doesn't follow the common-sense rules that we laid down in our infancy. It's hard to accept, for example, that we aren't the end product of evolution - even worse, evolution has no end product in mind. What's more, after our brains went through years and years of classifying the world into neat little categories such as "living/non-living; intelligent/non-intelligent; plant/animal," it's jarring to know that we're only 5% of the way off from chimpanzees and 50% off from being bananas!
Children intuit the world as they grow, and that is part of the mind-building process. This is the architecture of our minds. More often than not, it produces a rational picture of the world and how it works, but not always - the trade-off is that some supernatural ideas come along for the ride. While the mind-building process does prepare us to exist in the greater world, it also makes us fundamentally irrational beings. Some people are more able to overcome this irrationality than others, but even the hard-core skeptics may find it difficult to put on the sweater of Fred West, or have trouble not smiling when they're in the presence of the sweater of Fred Rogers.
In a way, this book was both a disappointment and a relief. I have always hoped that one day humanity would rise above its irrationality and start appreciating the world for what it is, instead of wasting time looking for things that just aren't there. But if Hood's hypothesis is correct, that's never going to happen. As long as we are human, there will always be a streak of the irrational in us. Try as we might, we will always have superstitions, strange beliefs, and we will always be looking for things that we cannot see.
And of course, perhaps this is a good thing. This irrationality is what gives us passion, it's what connects us together as a species and as societies. This belief in the sacred, for example, is what gives rise to shared values in a community and a shared sense of what is important and what is forbidden. Without it, we'd be a species of Lex Luthors - fundamentally selfish, sociopathic and without the ability to connect to others.
On a personal note, it means that maybe I don't have to be so hard on myself. I mean, being rational is great and all, but when you get to the point where you find yourself thinking something like, "Yeah, what is the big deal about incest?" then you know that it's time to give the prefrontal cortex a break. And instead of beating myself up for not being able to completely disavow all the goofy little supernatural things that I cling to, perhaps I can just accept them as part of what makes me who I am. I know there's nothing truly special about my books, but the supersense tells me otherwise. It may not be right, but at least it gives my life a little more color.
"If it's true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones."
- Bruce Hood, Supersense
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