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How we trick ourselves, mortality, confirmation bias, and being home alone.

November 3, 2009 by lolkitty: Kaela

In the spooky Autumnal atmosphere of Wrightwood and this creeky, tiny house, I find myself home alone and up late nights because of my Chris’ new graveyard shift schedule.  To be perfectly clear, I do not believe it ghosts, spirits, or anything supernatural.  However, I am one of the easiest people to scare, and being alone at night brings it out in me.

Even the thought of ghosts when I’m home alone at night like this makes my hair raise.  Our resident mouse, Mickey, causes some noise that spooks me, but nothing like the concept of ghosts.

I had a childhood friend, Nicole, that was told not to play with me because I “believed in ghosts.”  Unfortunately for me, I never really did, but I always very much wanted to believe, so I would try to find out for myself.  Nicole and I would walk the halls on sleepovers with flashlights and cameras trying to catch something.  I truly want to discover what there might be out there: but I suppose I never did find anything and my suspicions never went away.

I think that it’s very easy for people to believe in ghosts.  We’re very social creatures by nature, and when we hear or see something we can’t identify, we are more likely to visualize a face or a person where there isn’t one.  Our brains are just wired to see faces. It’s really been nagging at me that I feel so inclined to be spooked by “ghost” feelings.  Especially being such a skeptic (with exceptions to be pretty gullible in trusting in people). I think by now I have a feeling for how my mind observes things, and it does seek out explanations that are human based.

Chris’ mom passed away recently, I was living there around that time.  I remember very soon after he lost his mom, his Aunt Judi came to be with them. It was a very sad time, in a way that the feeling just hangs in the air.  I suppose this is where my mind’s susceptibility comes in, because I was so empathetic to this terrible sadness and helplessness of the whole situation.  One night, I fell asleep while Judi and Chris’ dad were talking, and started dreaming about Chris’ mom, Jody.  Probably because of the way American culture views ghosts, my dream reflected the “unfinished business” of a soul stuck in this world (not something I’d think of Jody, but just how my mind was putting the situation together), though there were a lot of complicated elements of the dream that could go into too much detail. (Not believing in supernatural, I don’t usually give much weight to dreams, but the fact that it’s what our brains do with their down time is important enough to note, especially when they have significant effects on us).  I distinctly felt that she was still there with us, and half way between dreaming and waking I heard Judi’s voice, thinking it was Jody’s. By the time I was fully awake, I realized the reality of the situation, that she wasn’t really there, and that my mind was so deceived, I wept.  I can’t even imagine what his family was going through, what terrible processes of the mind and heart a person must surmount when losing someone like Jody.  Our entire town grieved, even I heard about it everywhere I went.  To me, at least to my logical senses, that’s the best we can hope for as far as immortality: being remembered.

Even months later, we were saying how the unseasonal snows were Jody’s doing. Chris being even more of a skeptic than me, I was surprised that he felt like that, too.  I remember walking the dark halls in Chris’ house thinking, “I hope Jody thinks I’m good for her son” as though she was over my shoulder scrutinizing me. Sometimes I still wonder what my Grandmother, Vivian, would think seeing me do this or that. It’s an impossible habit to break.  It’s so human to have simply the concept of a person as much the reality as them existing in the flesh.  Why is this? Are there studies on this? I feel like I have to know.

Especially what is nagging at me is the concept of a stranger ghost.  Someone we don’t know that’s there just to go “boo!” And hide in the shadows.  Why am I so frightened of the dark and of bumps in the night?  I am a boyfriend described “militant atheist.”  I guess that means I come off too strong in bashing creationism. But I should be level headed enough to dismiss the concept of a ghost or spirit, right?

I just saw a really great video on “Confirmation Bias” on YouTube that made me think to post a blog about this, and also that I’m so scared for no reason.  Our culture has a confirmation bias of the supernatural.  There’s not a stitch of doubt that we’re all about anything that’s unproven by science. We love ghosts, chupacabra, homeopathy, feng shui, and anything else not approved by the FDA.  Science is viewed as the spoil-sport, that comes in and tells you how the magic trick is done right as you’re being delighted in the mystery of it.  Perhaps it is simply a fascination with the unknown that is strong enough to let us trick ourselves.  I think this is really an issue of psychology.

Now that confirmation bias I was talking about, there is a frighteningly powerful technology that’s making it even more widespread:  The Internet.  There are a host of ridiculous misinformation sources like: creationwiki, HIV/AIDS conspiracy, or even these wackjob conspiracy theorists.  Now people who are suspicious of something we all know is legitimate can have their misinformed views reinforced until they are mindless drones of the people who start these messes.  Our minds are very powerful at adapting to the circumstances.  We are inclined to trust authority figures and most importantly, popular belief.  If everyone says there is an afterlife, that there is a grey area to this afterlife, and that they themselves have personal experiences with it, it is a hard thing to completely remove from your own reality.  I myself cannot do it.

Superstition is another example of this.  I was a very superstitious little girl, always counting things in even numbers and doing things the lucky way, without exception.  I grew out of these tendencies for the most part, but I still have secret lucky items that I’ll put in my purse for a job interview, or such.  I find myself thinking, “this is so silly” and almost breaking the habit, but going back and saying “well, it couldn’t hurt!”  Or even thinking how the concept of having something lucky is like a placebo, and even though I know I’m using a placebo of lucky superstition, I can still benefit from it…… I know, it’s crazy.  But it’s better than giving in to the superstition all the way, right?

The Amazing Randi is one of my favorite celebrities.  Coming from a completely unscientific background, he comes from the background of tricking people.  Since one of his main missions has been to teach people how they can be tricked, I’ve been following his media appearances closely in the past year or so, trying to learn from what fools people, especially myself.  I really think that being superstitious, being creationists, being gullible, or letting our cognitive functions get hijacked for misuse is a real problem that we have to overcome as a society.  Believing in innocent tricks, like Randi says, is actually dangerous because it leads us to believe in larger “magic tricks” that can get us into much worse trouble (like cults, or Nigerian business men).

My point is this: I spend a lot of effort and thought in my life to try to be a more rational and inquisitive thinker.  It’s not easy, for certain.  I love the lure of mystery like anyone else, but more than mystery, I love discovery.  I love when scientists find new evidence that challenges current beliefs.  One of the best ways to enjoy that kind of discovery is in myself.  Why is the status quo as it is?  How can it be different? And to what ends?

The small morsel of reality that we savor with our limited perception is more spectacular than we can imagine.  I think Carl Sagan, my hero, said it best…

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas … If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.


1 Comment »

  1. You should just put a link to these on facebook and force your facebook friends to comment on your actual blog.

    I’d say that there’s /something/ to ghosts and the feelings in that there’s a real experience the person is having; we just can reject the supernatural explanations for it we always used to use. It is a kind of religious experience when someone dies (but not exactly a positive one, in the sense that people usually mean when they say religious experience) but needn’t be muddled with religious belief. The human mind doesn’t exactly know how to deal with death, but is programmed to not like it on the one hand but accept that it’s inevitable anyway on the other… I’m writing a poem about that right now.

    One thing I’d add about confirmation bias – not just the supernatural, but people’s beliefs about the world around them are shaped by their ideology. If someone already thinks that, for example, the free market is the best way to provide everything people need, they might ignore evidence for global warming (which would be the result of market failures, negative externalities if you will) and seek out examples of it bringing people out of poverty, etc. This afflicts people of all ideologies all across the political spectrum, so I’d say ditching the supernatural is half the battle.

    Remember when we used to go faerie hunting? hehehe.

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