Paranormal phenomena have mystified human beings since the dawn of time. It is not hard to imagine a typical early human who first looked up to the heavens and experienced rain. To his mind, the only possible explanation must have been that there was someone out there in the skies, looming over him and showering him with water every now and then. The same must have been true of why plants give fruit, and that age-old question: if the certainty in life is death, is there any point to it after all?
Much of the belief in paranormal activity can be traced back to this fear of death. All rational evidence points to the notion that life is indeed random, with very few things in our sphere of control. There appears to be no purpose to Earth and life, and geological history suggests strongly that human beings are only a tiny part of cosmic time. However, our minds have been shaped by evolution to question, to search for meaning – and if we can’t – to invent one.
Psychologists call this a protective shield, which is another way of saying that our paranormal beliefs offer us more comfort than does the harsh, meaningless, essentially random world in which we live. Our brains hate randomness and chaos so much, and they like to be ‘in control of the situation’ so badly that they often create fanciful explanations for mundane events.
We’re particularly vulnerable to this kind of behaviour when we’re going through a hard time in our lives where misfortune has struck – say in the form of death of a loved one, a job loss, or anything that makes us feel that we’re out of control. In order to feel in control of it all, we need to believe that the departed loved one has not ceased to exist, but he or she has moved on to another plane, where they’re awaiting us. This gives life meaning, and keeps us happier.
There may even be an evolutionary advantage to being a believer, scientists say. In many studies, making the subject believe that they’re working with a ‘lucky charm’ made them more likely to do better at memory tests. Telling amateur golfers that they’re playing with their ‘lucky balls’ made them better players. Even simple statements like ‘I will pray for you’ increase the likelihood of the person’s success at the endeavour he’s embarking upon.
Even if you think you’re a sceptic, there is a good chance that you believe in something else equally fanciful in the real world – like a conspiracy theory, for instance, or you could be convinced that your friends have it in for you, based on some spurious comment or the other.
So the bottom line is that our brains are wired for belief. Whether you like it or not, therefore, we’re all believers. We just believe in different things.