A majority of us believe in ghosts, magic and fortune tellers - not just because we want to but because we have to. Our brains are programmed to find supernatural explanations for the mysteries of our world, a professor told a major science conference in Britain yesterday.
Prof Bruce Hood argues that our brains are designed to organise sensory information and establish cause and effect. Even babies of 12 months are able to do this, implying it is innate rather than learned.
"It is just something our brains try to do," said Prof Hood, who holds the University of Bristol's chair of developmental psychology. "The mechanisms are probably hard-wired." This same wiring system, however, leaves us liable to accept less than scientific explanations for the unexplainable, whether it is magic, the notion of a sixth sense or a belief in luck, he added.
Prof Hood described his theories and research yesterday at the British Association's annual Festival of Science, which opened at the weekend in Norwich, England.
Even in this modern scientific age, most people cling to the notion of magic and the supernatural, he said. He cited a Gallup poll from the US that showed only 7 per cent of those sampled did not believe in any form of supernatural phenomenon such as telepathy, deja vu, reincarnation or ghosts.
"How can science make sense of such mass delusion?" he asked. His answer lies in the brain itself.
Many supernatural beliefs originate from the same mental and physiological process that also lead to rational explanations through what is called "intuitive reasoning", he said.
Developmental biologists have seen this process at work in infants less than a year old. Humans at all ages attempt to create structure and pattern to explain what they see and experience in the world and also what they cannot see.
As the adult matures, "rational" answers arising from unexplained events are as likely to incorporate a supernatural dimension.
"No amount of education is going to counter what a person believes is intuitively correct."
Repeated misapprehensions feed our belief in the supernatural, Prof Hood said. For example, studies have shown that 90 per cent of people believe they can detect when someone is staring at them. Many also report thinking about a person just before they receive a telephone call from them, putting this down to a sixth sense.
This cannot be proven in tests, but people still believe it. "The belief is still so common that most people are unaware that it is controversial." There may be evolutionary benefits from holding these beliefs, he said.
The use of lucky charms or the pre-match ritual of a sportsman give a person a perception of control in situations where in fact we have none.
"Most important, a belief in the supernatural can give people a deep sense of connection with the past and with each other."