See Inside January/February 2012

Common Brain Mechanisms Underlie Supernatural Perceptions

Belief in the paranormal arises from the same brain mechanisms that shape most human thought

Eric Reichbaum/Getty Images

You may have never personally caught sight of Jesus Christ’s face in a potato chip, but you have likely succumbed to an equally improbable belief at some point in your life. Many people claim that ghosts exist or that their dreams can predict the future. Some individuals even think they have seen the face of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich and Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun.

Although such beliefs may sound farfetched, they are surprisingly common. An opinion poll conducted in 2005 showed that three out of four Americans believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena. Other work has revealed that about one in three of us claim to have experienced the supernatural. The sheer ubiquity of these experiences has led many psychologists to wonder whether common mechanisms might underlie some of these widespread convictions.

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