Supersense: A Review (of sorts)

Supersense US cover

Supersense: U.S. Cover

 

“Reading SuperSense is like having lunch with your favorite professor—the conversation spans religion, biology, psychology, philosophy, and early childhood development. One thing is for sure, you’ll never see the world in the same way again.” ~ Ori Brafman, New York Times bestselling author of Sway

I have a confession to make: I actually feel a little intimidated about writing a review of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable, the book written by one of my favorite bloggers, Bruce M. Hood. Obviously, I should explain.

I finished reading Bruce’s book a couple of months ago. My first inclination was, “Wow, that was even better than I thought that it would be.” My second inclination was that I should post a review of  the book on my blog. My third inclination was, “I’m not worthy.”

I found Supersense to be one of those books that crosses many lines: Well-written and entertaining, the book’s premise is intellectual. It appeals to a very broad spectrum of people, and it’s a great read. That in mind, when I tried to write a review, I kept feeling that I just wasn’t doing the book justice. Don’t ask me why I felt this way; it’s irrational, I know.

Hence, my usual reaction to such situations kicked in: I procrastinated until I finally became embarrassed enough in the delay that I did something about it.

A Little Background

Bruce is the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. His CV is mightily impressive: research fellow at Cambridge University and University College London, a visiting scientist at MIT , and a faculty professor at Harvard. But with the publication of Supersense, Bruce’s media recognition has grown exponentially. His book tour has taken him to several countries, and he has appeared on numerous radio shows, as well as on the BBC, and he has delivered several lectures on the concept of Supersense.

Let me regress here. I came upon Bruce M. Hood’s blog almost a year ago. I was immediately hooked. The posts ranged from mummified sea monsters to ideas about phrenology (studying bumps on the head), cremation and ashes, goat gonads, sitings of Jesus on a Cheetoh, and my personal favorite, saucy codpiece. It’s a wild and wonderful world at Bruce’s blog.

Would You Wear A Killer’s Cardigan?

Supersense UK cover
Supersense: UK Cover

As defined by the author, an individual’s supersense is the inclination or sense that supernatural experiences may be real, even though they are not supported by facts or substantiated by reliable evidence (paraphrased from page x in the book). Essentially, Bruce contends that as humans, we are born with this hard-wiring to try to make sense of the world in which we live, even if it means having beliefs that aren’t exactly explainable, or being superstitious, or seeing patterns. 

For example: Do you knock on wood? Have you ever thrown salt over your shoulder? Do you have a lucky suit or a certain pair of shoes that you wear to job interviews? Have you ever felt as if someone is staring at you? Supersense.

In addition to fleshing out the definition of supersense and how it “shapes our intuitions and superstitions and is essential to the way we learn to understand the world and in binding us together as a society,” the book elaborates on this premise through numerous relatable incidents such as those mentioned previously.

Bruce explores why some people would wear the cardigan (sweater for Americans) belonging to a killer while others would not, why an individual needing an organ transplant might reject an organ donated by a killer, why athletes have rituals that they repeat before beginning any game, and why the concept of security blankets and other attachment objects are so pervasive in society.

The Science and the Psychology

Of course, Supersense is foremost an exposition of a scientific premise that humans are born with this heightened, or super sense, and the author cites several studies of babies and children to support this thesis. The scholarship works companionably with the author’s use of observations and anecdotes.

Among many of the book’s reviews from authors, researchers, journals, and magazines, I read a wonderful review of Bruce’s book in Psychology Today. Written by Dave Sobel, this review delves a bit more into the child development aspects of the book in a way that I could not do justice. Sobel discusses the author’s work with Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology a Yale University. Together, the men created a “copy machine,” a machine that could supposedly make an exact duplicate of an object, when in fact, the machine was a mere magic trick.

What was interesting about this “machine,” was how children reacted to it: As Sobel explains,

“Hood and Bloom found that children were willing to accept duplicates of many kinds of familiar objects, except one specific kind—attachment objects like their security blanket or a special stuffed animal (actually, they almost never would allow these objects to be duplicated in the first place). Children recognize that an object’s experience is as critical to its identity as its physical appearance.”

“Hood’s marvelous book is an important contribution to the psychological literature that is revealing the actuality of our very irrational human nature.” ~ From Review in Science

Essentially, Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable is appealing to both the layperson and the professional. Bruce’s use of first person makes the writing extremely approachable, and his balance of humor and scientific observation work together well in keeping his audience engaged. Ultimately, the book challenges the reader to think about why it is we humans rationalize the irrational, believe in the unbelievable, and avoid walking under ladders after breaking mirrors on Friday the 13th.

You can purchase your copy of Supersense at most bookstores, or online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and several other sources. Something to keep in mind: This book would be the perfect gift for the skeptical reader in your life.

More later. Peace.

“Very superstitious, writings on the wall,/Very superstitious, ladders bout to fall” ~ From Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”

supersense-us-cover

The U.S. Book Cover for Supersense

“There is superstition in avoiding superstitions.” Sir Francis Bacon

Supersense: Bruce Hood’s Book Hits the Shelves

I know that several people who follow my blog also follow Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable (http://brucemhood.wordpress.com/), which is hosted by researcher, scientist, and author Bruce M. Hood.

supersense-uk-cover
Supersense U.K. Cover

Bruce’s blog is always entertaining, very often educational, and the comment streams can be great fun. I have been visiting Bruce’s blog for a while now, and I will freely admit that it is one of my favorites. I think that I enjoy the comments as much as the blogs themselves. Those of us who comment regularly are an irreverent bunch, mostly from the UK and the US, but people drop in from all over the world.

Bruce is currently on the U.S. leg of his promotional tour for his book, which has the same name as his blog site; unfortunately for me, Bruce’s tour dates didn’t come anywhere near the Mid-Atlantic, or I would have traveled to see him. As it is, once I am able to purchase is book, I am probably going to send it to Bruce so that he can autograph it for me.

I’ll probably order the UK version as I really prefer that cover to the US cover. (Decisions on cover designs for different countries is fodder for an entire class on design. Don’t get me started.)

Here is a brief description from the Amazon site:

Why is it that Tony Blair always wore the same pair of shoes when answering Prime Minister’s Questions? That John McEnroe notoriously refused to step on the white lines of a tennis court between points? And that President-elect Barack Obama played a game of basketball the morning of his victory in the Iowa primary, and continued the tradition the day of every following primary? Superstitious habits are common. Do you ever cross your fingers, knock on wood, avoid walking under ladders, or step around black cats? Sentimental value often supersedes material worth. If someone offered to replace your childhood teddy bear or wedding ring with a brand new, exact replica, would you do it?

It has been wonderful keeping up with him and his promotions people in the big lead up to the publication dates in the UK and in the US. And in spite of his busy and hectic schedule, he still finds time to post to allow his regular readers to keep up with his goings on.

He was on NPR on April 7 with Brian Lehrer, but I missed the show. If I hadn’t missed it, you can bet that I would have called in and asked Bruce about mummified mermaids. But since I missed the show, I wanted to take this opportunity to post the youtube of the show, called “Are You Superstitious?”

 

 

“Men are probably nearer the central truth in their superstitions than in their science” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Personally, I am very superstitious about some things but not others, but I don’t really think about it until someone points it out. For example, I have no problems in opening an umbrella inside of the house or a building, but this drives my poor mother crazy. However, I do not like to walk under ladders; but to be perfectly honest, I think that this dislike arises more from clumsiness than superstition.

I don’t believe in throwing salt over my shoulder or knocking on wood (more because everything is laminate, and that kind of defeats the purpose of wood), but I do believe in ghosts, more because of events that have happened in my life. I’ll pick up pennies whether they are heads up or heads down, just because I view a penny as part of a larger whole; is that in itself a superstition?

arnold_6661Friday the 13th passes by without my acknowledgement, but I wouldn’t want to stay on the 13th floor of a hotel, nor would I want to stay in room 666. I don’t believe in the seven years of bad luck associated with breaking mirrors, but I might want to rethink that one considering the string of bad luck that we’ve had.

I don’t believe in lucky clothes, but I’m not an athlete. My former husband used to be a competitive runner, and he had a lucky t-shirt. And I’ve known other people who play sports who have lucky socks or lucky shirts. However, I do have an old sweater from the sixth grade that I refuse to rid myself of, as well as a t-shirt from high school that is faded and wouldn’t fit on my thigh, but I cannot bring myself to throw that away either. Superstition or sentimentality? Is there a difference?

walking-on-broken-glass
Walking on Broken Glass by L. Liwag

I am not afraid of black cats; in fact, I find them rather beautiful. But I do believe in angels or angelic presence. I don’t believe in things commonly referred to as “old wives’ tales,” but my mother still clings to many of these.

For example, my mother still has a thing about the night air, as in people who are sick shouldn’t go out in the night air. This “old wives’s tale” actually dates back to the Renaissance and before. People used to believe that ill humours floated about in the night air, and those who actually chanced a nightly constitutional among the humours would be affected adversely by catching diseases and ailments. As a result of this, my mother would never let me go out at night when I was younger for fear that my asthma would be affected by the night air.

Okay, then.

I can tell you that since my operation, my back now is a very good predictor of rain and snow, just as people for years have claimed that their arthritis predicts bad weather.

“Like it or not, we’re still a primitive tribe ruled by fears, superstition and misinformation.” ~ Bill Maher 

My father used to have this funny superstition, but I’m not sure if he really believed it or just found it funny enough to pass on. Apparently, an ancient Filipino, perhaps Asian cure for when people were choking on fish bones was to pat them on the head. I’ll never forget when Alexis seemed to have something caught in her throat, and my dad said, “Pat her on the head. It will go away.” Luckily, she wasn’t really choking. We’ve laughed about that one for years.

Another superstition among many tribes and religions is that of a woman being unclean when she is menstruating. In some cultures, these women were/are made to go stay in a separate hut or room until her menses passes. Often the superstition is that the woman can contaminate the rest of the village somehow, or, that the menstruating woman is a little bit mad. I can vouch for the latter: Men should try having bloating, cramps, headaches, insomnia, and mood swings every month of their lives . . .

full-moon-croppedThen there are the serial killers. Now there’s a superstitious bunch for you. What do I mean? How about those who will only kill under the full moon? Or those who will only kill women with blond hair? Or those that will bury their dead in the same place because it’s lucky? Icky, huh?

Or cultural superstitions: not eating cows because they are sacred (India), throwing coins in a fountain while facing away from a fountain will grant three wishes (Argentina), or not sleeping with your head pointed north because that’s the direction that dead people face (Japan).

Or doomsday cults. That’s another superstitious subculture. The world will end at the new millennium. The world will end when women get the vote. The world will end when blacks are integrated into society. The world will end when I finally publish a book. No wait, that one is mine. Sorry.

I’m not even going to touch on the superstitions tied to various religions. That is a book all by itself. Scientology anyone?

I could go on, but it would be much better if you ordered Bruce’s book (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your independent bookseller), and read about these things as written by an expert on the subject.

I do want to close with a quote by the incredible Carl Sagan when he was pondering what would happen at the close of the millennium: “I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.”

 “Siren song of unreason”—boy I wish that I had written that.

More later. Peace.