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Interview With Dr. Bruce M. Hood, Supernatural Scientist

with Diane Saarinen

Dr. Bruce M. Hood, author of Supersense: Why We Believe In the Unbelievable (HarperOne, $25.99), recently chatted with us at New Age Journal to discuss superstition, sacred values and why society needs to believe in the supernatural. Despite being a skeptic, Dr. Hood also admitted he’s open to having psychic readings and apparently has experienced synchronicity. Read on…

New Age Journal: You have said you are a skeptic. Have you always been a skeptic or did you have experiences that shaped this?

Dr. Bruce M. Hood: No, I’ve not always been a skeptic. In fact, one of the reasons I got into all this was because I was interested in the possibility of the paranormal. I remember growing up and watching people like Uri Geller on television. I was convinced that this must be real. Absolutely fascinated with the possibility of these abilities. Unfortunately, when I got to University and took science degrees, I discovered that actually the evidence for these abilities is very weak or very limited.

But having done that, I got interested in the mind and consciousness and got interested in psychology. So, yes – I’ve not always been a skeptic. I’d love this to be real! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these people who wants to just kind of dismiss it all. I’d like to believe it’s possible. But, unfortunately, there’s not that much evidence to support it. So! I have to put my scientific hat on and remain skeptical for the moment.

NAJ: Okay, the next question comes from a Twitterer. (Note: Dr. Hood is active on the social networking site Twitter.com as @supersense.) She wants to know: Have you ever had a psychic or tarot reading that was spot on?

BMH: No, I haven’t. You know, I should do those – shouldn’t I? I mean, I should go and at least have a go. I mean, there’s all this written about cold reading. I’ve heard all these alternative explanations as to why some people are so good at doing readings. My problem would probably be that I’d go in with such a skeptical view that it would probably be difficult. But I’m open to it!

NAJ: It’s said that 75 percent of all Americans believe in some form of telepathy, déjà vu, ghosts or past lives. So are we irrational and loosely anchored to reality for thinking these things?

BMH: Well, I think that the mechanism that lead us to interpret the world, the way that I call a “mind design” makes you see patterns. And it allows you to detect the coincidences and the occurrences in the world. But in doing so, it sometimes leads to misconceptions. So you think things are significant when they really are not. When you get to the end of the book, you’ll discover that I’ve actually made a very strong case that we need to have the belief in belief – the possibility that there is this hidden dimension to reality because for a society, and for people in a group, to kind of have a sense of communal cohesion, we have to buy into this idea that there are some things that transcend the mundane and are profound. These are the things that have to be supernatural.

Because, otherwise, if they’re not – then anyone can kind of dismiss them as irrational or can own, can buy, can trade them. There are some things in the world that are sacred values that everyone in the group agrees are just something special and that’s how the group coheres. And anyone who doesn’t buy into that is not a group member. So, “if you don’t believe in my religion or you don’t believe in my rituals, then you’re not part of my group.” So we need them to form our social groups.

NAJ: That lines up interestingly with the next question which is: What about the Jungian concept of synchronicity? Do you believe in meaningful coincidences?

BMH: Well, probably not. And I’m not that familiar with Jungian – I mean, I’ve heard of Jungian synchronicity. And certainly, we all experience it all the time. Just at this meeting – I’ve been running into people, and it’s almost… You talk about someone and then you turn around and they are standing right next to you! It’s as if everything seems to be falling into an incredible pattern where things just seem beyond coincidence.

And that’s the amazing thing! That we interpret these things as being really poignant. But, of course, we forget a lot of the things which are not patterns. Just to get back to the previous question – I also think that we do need people who have this capacity to see structure and patterns in the world. Because I think it relates to creativity. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the creative types are those more inclined towards belief in the supernatural. Whereas the rational, kind of plodding thinkers, they are the scientists but they are kind of methodical and they don’t make the leaps of logic that you need to get progress.

So for humans to kind of get clever and smart, we need to combine the two ways of thinking – the creative, seeing the possibility of structures but combining that with methodological approach to kind of improving them. So I think that we need both types in our society.

NAJ: There was a point in your book where you said, regarding belief in ghosts: “If you believe the ancestors are watching us, you’re more likely to conform to society’s rules and regulations.” Could you elaborate on that?

BMH: Well, this is based on experimental work. So if you get people into a room and you get them to take a part in an experiment. If you tell them that someone had died in the room previously and there was a rumor that it was haunted, people are less likely to cheat on computer tests. So this is an idea that a colleague of mine has been developing, this notions in the ancestors watching and looking down upon you, can give you that sense of guilt.

And certainly just something simple – I think maybe later on in the book there’s a bit that I show that if you place a pair of eyes on the wall, you know – just pin up a picture of some eyes, next to the – I don’t know if you have it in this country, but when we buy coffee in the communal office we have to put a contribution into the box to pay for the coffee. Well, they showed that if you just simply post eyes on the wall, people pay three times the amount of your contribution for their coffee than when there’s no eyes. So in other words, the thought that you are being watched is a very powerful motivator to conform and so it’s not that much difficult to say that the notion of ancestors watching out for you can make you much more amenable.

NAJ: You did say that for something to be experienced as sacred, it has to become supernatural. It has to be more than mundane. So can you just talk a little bit more on that?

BMH: In various parts of the book, I talked about this idea of being essences or a hidden dimension to reality – something in addition to the physical. And I think that the point about that is if something is just simply materialistic, then the way that we conceive of things could be material is that they are replaceable. So in a ring – if you just replace every molecule of the ring so it effectively becomes a different ring, then you don’t really care. It’s just another ring.

But if that ring is a sacred ring – it’s your wedding ring or a ring of a saint, then you can’t just simply replace the material components of the ring. There’s something in addition to it which makes it profound so that would require something supernatural.

Dr. Bruce M. Hood is currently chair of developmental psychology and director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol. He was previously a professor in the department of psychology, Harvard University and a visiting scientist at MIT. To learn more about Dr. Hood and Supersense, visit his blog at http://brucemhood.wordpress.com/

Diane Saarinen is a writer and tarot reader who believes she is a Finnish-American force of nature. Visit her Web site at http://thrivingandscribing.com.

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