Sunday, April 08, 2007

Why people believe in weird things....   posted by Razib @ 4/08/2007 12:01:00 AM

1 in 5 Americans believe in reincarnation, the same numbers as in Europe. One can ascribe this to the influence of Indian religion, but recall that reincarnation has ancient roots within Europe. My own suspicion is that reincarnation is an "evoked" belief which many humans find plausible. Like the existence of gods it doesn't have to be "invented" by a genius, cognates naturally emerge in a parallel manner across human societies due to the universal mix of psychology & environment. I have made no secret of the fact that my own position is that modal human theism likely emerges from conventional and prosaic human cognitive processes (e.g., agency detection), but what about supernatural ideas like reincarnation? A new paper, The false fame illusion in people with memories about a previous life (popular press summary), sheds some light on the modal cognitive processes which might account for belief in past lives which seem to be a recurring phenomenon in human culture. Researchers found that those who claimed to have past life memories made consistent and systematic errors in a particular psychological task. In short, it seems that these individuals tended to be more suggestible and prone to allowing mistakes in associational memory creep into their recollections. It seems possible then that cognitive "misfiring" opens up an avenue whereby these strange mental concepts can easily slip into the domain of plausibility (innate mind-body duality already seems to convince us about the permanence of the soul). The control group was less likely to make these mistakes, and were also less likely to believe in reincarnation, but this does not negate the general relationship and the likelihood that similar (if attenuated) cognitive processes are at work on a broad scale across human societies.