April 08, 2007
Believers In Reincarnation Make Consistent Mental Mistake

Razib of the Gene Expression blog reports on a research paper which suggests people who believe in reincarnation make systematic errors in a measurable mental task and errors in their associational memory processing may account for their belief in 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.

Also see the Scientific American coverage. In a nutshell: people who are asked to imagine some past event who are especially good at creating imagined images in their minds tend to convert those images into beliefs that the event actually took place. Maybe this is why Hollywood people tend to embrace impractical political beliefs (e.g. many flocked to Marxism). They think some kind of world is possible because they've imagined parts of it in their own minds and their imaginings seem realistic to them.

Human beings make a variety of recurring errors which strongly suggest the human brain has innate flaws in its design. I think one of the reasons for this is that our ancestors had to work with such fragmentary information that the brain is not designed to work with the amount of data and sorts of data needed to really make sense of the work.

Consider our limitations with mathematical reasoning and with statistical reasoning in particular. For example, the human brain has a tendency to take greater notice of two events occurring together than when only one of them occurs. Hence the brain tends to form supersitious beliefs. For example, Friday the 13th is considered unlucky by many and therefore they'll remember better when bad things happen on the 13th than when they happen apart.

Another example that I repeatedly hear from a couple of friends is the idea that famous people die in threes. They'll point to 3 famous actors who all died within the space of a few weeks. Never mind that sometimes just one or two die (or one or two that they notice). Never mind that many more lesser name celebrities die without coming to their attention or that they'll pay less attention to the lesser name celebrity deaths when they do not die near the date of a bigger name's passing. Never mind that the time period over which the famous three get tallied up can be days or weeks or that they'll ignore a less famous death when they have 3 very famous deaths to group together but will include the less famous when they have only 2 very famous to include in their set.

Think about what these results portend for future offspring genetic engineering. Some will choose genes that make their kids more rational and less likely to make mental mistakes. Others will choose genes that assure their kids will be more prone to spiritual beliefs. I expect different alleles will be found that make people more prone to religious beliefs in different ways. For example, the ideal genetic choices to make a person more prone to accept Muslim teachings will probably be quite different than the ideal genetic choices make a person prone to Buddhism.

To repeat an argument regular readers have heard from me before: I expect offspring genetic engineering Will increase the diversity of patterns in human thinking. I realize the term "diversity" has become a popular term among intellectuals to utter as a talisman against all manner of evil. But when diversity takes the form of a clash of values and a clash in understanding of the nature of the world it can and does lead to violent conflicts over which vision of society will win out.

On the bright side, offspring genetic engineering to boost intelligence will increase the ability of humans to understand reality. The general IQ boost might swamp the effect of genetic choices that enhance particular patterns of thought and belief. But then again, it might not.

Also see my posts Genetic Influence For Religiosity And Altruism and Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 April 08 04:43 PM  Brain Spirituality

rsilvetz said at April 9, 2007 12:05 PM:

I find these reports utterly fascinating.

In part, a deep understanding of Bayesian statistics, explains some of this. One can show quite nicely in math, that given opposing axioms and a-priori values, two individuals will diverge. So just talking to these people won't work. Paradoxically, whatever you claim will only reinforce their views. We have seen many examples of this everyday in our FuturePundit debates.

The root error, is holding on to a belief in spite of evidence to the contrary. The survival benefit when our world-view was not as sophisticated is clear. It transmitted survival knowledge generationally .

I'm not going to go so far as to say that we are seeing persistence of ancient model of human (or genes if you prefer). Unlike Randall, I'm ternary -- nature, nurture, consciousness. The issue never was that we escaped natural selection -- but that we can thru consciousness bring all these alleged influences under our control. Similarly, these systematic errors of cognition can easily be corrected by moving them from unconscious reaction to conscious action.

These folks showing systematic error were not hit on the side of the head with a 2x4 at the age of 8 and told that there is no such thing as past lives, god, or any other of the endless mysticisms humans cherish so much. What's more they should have been clobbered twice, to explain to them that because there is a right-brain vision doesn't mean it's correct if it conflicts with known physical law. Imagining being a caveman fighting a tyrannosaurus rex and thinking it is so, is a flight of fancy and should be taught to them as such when those precious neurons are connecting.

Another part of the Bayesian dilemma here is the difference or rather the suspected difference, between what is real and what is claimed to be real. When I show my God-believing friends just how much their beliefs are based in myth, fraud and inanity, not only do I get fury but I get the silly statement "It's just your opinion". Uh, no -- lack of evidence for the God hypothesis IS lack of evidence. It's not a claim and not an opinion. It is simply is. They confuse what I'm saying with the fact that I am saying it. (e.g. I have an error rate, it's a non-sequiter to assume without reason my statement is in error.) Unfortunately, thinking with rigor is not a hallmark of everyday living... and folks reasonably discount most of what they hear. Bayesian dilemma, understanding the context and rigor of what's coming at you. Thus, this phenomenon exists even among scientists, but at the margin. When scientists make claims, our high-value belief in process and data, lets us accept fact and derived conclusion better. This is why views will converge over time and most often rapidly, within science circles.

John S Bolton said at April 10, 2007 12:41 AM:

Does historical imagination have a genetic component,
and how would alleles favoring it have spread in Malthusian eras?
Perhaps historical imagination, or the genetically-influenced characters
which underlie some part of its variance in the population,
would have formed a mnemonic scaffold, coloring the otherwise
rather themeless chronicles of the past of some such lineages;
allowing the actually relevant information,
which was yet not known to be such at the time it was memorized by such means,
to later yield valuable lessons, favoring such a lineage?
Then the susceptibility to personally damaging belief in
reincarnation, not only of others, but of oneself from
arbitrarily selected figures, might be a disadvantage to the homozygote, while the benefit accrued to the heterozygotes of the same lineage,
maintaining the allele?

Cogsys said at April 10, 2007 9:13 AM:

Re specific genetic component
It seems more likely this is just another result of the general imaginative fallacy at the root of most supernaturalism: being prone to believe if one can imagine something vividly it is real.

Matt said at April 10, 2007 11:25 AM:

These folks showing systematic error were not hit on the side of the head with a 2x4 at the age of 8 and told that there is no such thing as past lives, god, or any other of the endless mysticisms humans cherish so much.

The problem for you is that in fact there is a great deal of evidence for some of the phenomena you disdain. It's just that you are convinced by your metaphysical belief in reductionistic materialism that none of it is possible. The widespread cultural appeal of atheistic reductionism among scientists and their fellow-travellers is essentially a psychological reaction to the social and intellectual repression by religion over much of history.

rsilvetz said at April 10, 2007 5:33 PM:


There is no problem for me. Myth is myth and that's all there is to it. If one believes in Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or God or Allah or multiple life reincarnation, one is believing in myth. These folks make an assertion, the burden of proof is theirs, and they can't meet that burden. Why? Because, there's no evidence. The speculative poppycock you linked to is just that -- I remind you if you need hard evidence -- that NOOONE has won the Randi Challenge under its controlled conditions. That shuts the book on ESP/Supernaturalism until someone succeeds. If there were the evidence the book cites, the challenge would easily be winnable.

Nonetheless I don't want to open up the whole line of thought as to why most humans have problems with a natural-law-only universe and Randall has documented several times over there is some genetic basis for this. For those of us who haven't inherited this (or as in my case, the scientists got to me before the religionists, and thus I'm immunized), I don't see why this is an issue of any controversy.

In a country based on freedom they are free to believe and say anything. Conversely I get to say they are believing in nothing but fantasy fairy tales to comfort themselves against the fact of their mortality. And the twain shall not meet because the axioms are opposed to one another.

As far as FuturePundit is concerned, FP thinks gene engineering will correct or amplify variability. Probably. I argue that this is easily surmountable educationally at an early age, by tempering their over-developed right brain with a little left-brain discipline.

Joe said at April 11, 2007 8:36 PM:

I think there's an important distinction that is being missed in Mr. Parker's otherwise excellent (as usual) post.

Peters found that those who had apparent memories of past lives were more likely to have a memory defect.

Peters findings have nothing to do with whether someone believes in reincarnation (as presumably 100s of millions of people in India believe as a basic tenet of their religion); the findings relate only to those who have apparent memories of past lives.

I personally would hope that no one would use this study to attempt an intellectual leap that would cause them to negatively judge anyone whose faith happens to be Hindu or Buddhist.

K said at April 13, 2007 5:41 PM:

'the human brain has a tendency to take greater notice of two events occurring together than when only one of them occurs'

This seems to be true. I see it as a strength not a weakness. Isn't it the way we figure out cause and effect and relationships?

rsilvetz (above) observed the root error is in holding on to a belief despite evidence to the contrary. That seems right. Yet it can be hard to know when to switch. Even in the hard sciences the meaning of experiment and observation can be fiercely disputed.

Dick said at February 12, 2009 9:29 PM:

Matt said: "I remind you if you need hard evidence -- that NOOONE has won the Randi Challenge under its controlled conditions. That shuts the book on ESP/Supernaturalism until someone succeeds."

Hmmm. And I might remind YOU, my dear friend, that NO ONE has undertaken EITHER the million dollar challenge NOR the $500,000 challenge offered by lawer Victor Zammit! Would you explain this please? You can find both of those offers here www.victorzammit.com .

Ta ta, my friend...oh, and here's a little bit of "proof" for you...a deceased person seen by TWO...that's right, not one, but TWO separate people at the same time. An explanation please?

Monday morning, my bedroom door opened...I thought it was my cat pushing open the door. My fiancé and I both leaned over to greet him, (my cat), and a man stood there with a kind smile and his hands in his pockets. We both sat there knowing that he did not belong there. Speechless, he and I just stared at this male figure and started to lean backwards. The man was my grandfather. I never knew him-but he looked just like my brother. He did not say anything but my boyfriend and I clearly heard, “call your mother and tell her I love her”. He just dissolved. I turned to Jon and asked him if he saw it what I just saw. He just said...call your mom! I called my mom and she was frantic...she said that she just saw her dad and he scared the shit out of her. She was having a full panic attack. It was like she had just caught him peaking in on her. He popped around a corner and she jumped out of her chair and nearly poked her eye out as she applied eye shadow. She immediately started calming down as soon as I told her about our experience moments earlier. I think she was on the verge of a heart attack. I told her he came to Jon and I. I know he came to me to calm her down…doesn’t hurt that my future husband is a cardiologist and he ran over to the house to verify that her heart rate was too dangerously high and took her to the hospital. No heart attack to report, thank GOD! I have an MBA and my fiancé is a doctor. Purely terrifying and exhilarating all the same time! There is definitely life after death and my grandfather looks great! I am officially not afraid to die.

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