THE SUPERSTITION INSTINCT
This article is in the form of letters I wrote to Wendy Kaminer and Richard Dawkins, current writers on superstition.
Wendy Kaminer C/O Pantheon Publicity Dept.201 East 50th StreetNew York, NY 10022
Dear Ms. Kaminer
I just finished Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials. I appreciated it deeply. Itís an informative and fairly complete resume of current superstitious belief and behavior. However, one of the problems with yours and othersí books that confront superstitious beliefs is the lack of a definitive working model of the Superstition Instinct present in varying degrees in all people. Superstition needs to be seen as the instinct it actually is, not just some ethereal preference. You refer to it as an omnipresent belief and behavior, but it is much more than that. Superstition is an actual instinct much like sex, eating, approval/ostracism and xenophobia. My father once told me as an adolescent, "You take your sexuality so seriously. Everyone has it, you know." Superstition is the same. You call this personal misinterpretation "lack of compartmentalization." I call it "corticolimbic dissociation." In the enclosed book youíll see how I define that term and hook it up with "irresistible belief," (the Autonomous Thinking Belief) and the workings of the human brain, currently enshrouded in misconception. Humans are built this way and we need to realize this more thoroughly. Instincts are not cultural phenomena but are built into the genetic code. How they are manifest may be cultural, but not their existence, power, and omnipresence.
All instincts are taken too seriously because they "feel" that way, as you point out. The whole gamut of human instincts is derived from evolution, evolutionary psychology (put down because of fears of genetic engineering). The last instinct to appear in humans, 50,000 years ago or so, is superstition. All instincts act in conjunction with the decision-making apparatus (DMA) which is hundreds of millions of years old. This DMA is clearly not well understood by anyone, but I have attempted to envision it and its workings. I discovered this concept while I was attempting to understand the basis of addictions. I discovered that addictions originate from genetic diversity within this mechanism. [The DMA is altered by low activity alleles of genes making up the reward system (I call it the Feel OK SystemóFOKS for short). That is, low activity alleles of genes making up the neurotransmitter system of reward. Examples of this concept are routinely found in lab animals who "voluntarily" get addicted to the same drugs humans do. These drugs, it turns out, affect the same receptors as the natural reinforcing neurotransmitters used to make instincts feel good. These "feel good" neurotransmitters reinforce all instincts including superstition. Thatís where the awe and ecstasy of the "spiritual experience" originate; simply dopamine release. This, of course, is capable of being studied. When it is, dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens will, I predict, be observed surrounding "spiritual experiences," exactly as in other "natural" and chemical highs.]
The current problem is that the nature of human nature is misunderstood and perverted by how "experts" want it to be rather than how it is. Many of the beliefs and emotional experiences of the superstitious people you describe in your book, much like the rest of us, are caused by various instincts used in certain circumstances they were actually built to be used in. Gee! The problem is that people donít know these feelings and behaviors are instinct driven. They think they are realized out of choice and self-invention. Everyone invented the same instincts? How commonplace and coincidental. No.
Some people are more superstitious than others because of the diversity of alleles of genes making up and rewarding this instinct. Itís the same with all instincts. There is diversity in the strength of all instincts in all people. This is one of the reasons we are all different (quantitatively but not qualitatively). I discuss all this in the book.
The extremes of belief in certain instincts turn out to be what defines addiction. Addictions encompass behaviors stemming from all the instincts or the neurotransmitter substitutes of the natural reward neurotransmitters. Itís clear when you look at addictions in this perspective. All addictions come right out of the extremes of the DMA and only in certain people who have a genetic deficiency of the reward neurotransmitters. These alleles are genetically transmitted. They are not the genes for specific addictions but for the qualitatively depressed activity of the DMA [which can be depressed differently (different low activity genes) in different people, and thus the diversity of addictions seen in these people].
The extremes of superstition and people addiction lead to the ones you find so goofy such as Heavenís Gate, and other cults. This includes religious fanatics found even in the "orthodox" religions, and recovery groups. These are all derived from the same goofy system. They are actual addictions in some people and stem from Hypoism. The addicts know not what they do nor why. My book discusses this extensively. The concept discusses all instincts and all addictions coming from them. Itís a complete and global paradigm.
(Below is a discussion I recently sent to Richard Dawkins about the same ideas.)
Lastly, the problem with pseudoscience and pseudoexpertise. Robyn Dawes (House of Cards) did a great job with this. Be that as it may, his arguments went unheard. People want to believe in experts even when there is no expertise (Why People Believe in Weird Things). The psychology of addictions, so-called addictionology, is thoroughly pervaded with bias, pseudoscience, and ideas meant to control people, not free them. As you pointed out, experiments are done to prove biased "theories," not explore the unknown. The current psychological/religious paradigm of addictions IS a religion with the psychologists and psychiatrists as high priests. I have tried to debunk this too. However, the believers go on believing.
The political/legal system dealing with addictions uses this paradigm to support its punitive and moralistic bent. The P.I.M.M.P.A.L. complex described in my book is totally supported by this nonsense which comes out of academia and the NIH. No one from the outside is allowed to debunk it because they canít get an audience. The audience is deaf and blind due to its mythology based fear of addictions, blind faith in official experts, its own bias (recovery movement), fear of authority, or by its hate for anyone different (xenophobia). We live in a superstitious time no different from the dark ages. Critical thinking is heresy when it comes to issues from the neck up.
You are very polite in your analysis of these superstitious quirks, I am not. I see the utter devastation these absolutist beliefs cause in peoplesí lives and I must rave about it. Please let me know if I can help you in any way with your debunking activities. I would appreciate the action. Please let me know if you can help me with my activities ( see my web site, www.hypoism.com) as well. The few realistic people in this world need to get hooked up somehow. They are really few and far between, especially the ones with courage to speak out and who use clear thinking.
I hope you read the book thoroughly.
Haughton Mifflin Publishing Corporation c/o Richard Dawkins215 Park Ave. SFl. 10New York, NY 10003-1652
I like your book's perspective, forthright voice, and conceptualizations.
I believe your new book, Unweaving the Rainbow, falls short, however, because of just one thing. You donít label the "appetite for wonder" as an instinct, the SUPERSTITION instinct. Yes. Superstition is an instinct. It is the only instinct unique to humans and should be perceived as such. In that context people can more easily come to grips with the inherent irrationality of that instinct since they will probably be able to identify with the inherent irrationality of all their instincts, including superstition.
"We have an appetite for wonder, a poetic appetite, which real science ought to be feeding but which is being hijacked, often for monetary gain, by purveyors of superstition, the paranormal and astrology." This is actually the superstition instinct youíre referring to, not merely an appetite. This instinct works in a goofy way. It makes a person ask a question (why?), be it answerable or not, and then makes him answer it. The answers can either be rational or irrational. The figure, below, is how I picture this concept.
I also have inquired into the mechanism of decision-making vis-ŗ-vis instincts. I have found that the entire mechanism for utilizing instincts involves what I call the decision-making apparatus. Within this scheme is the reward system for reinforcing the use of instincts, the feel O.K. system (FOKS). The figure below is how this appears to me schematically:
In other words, people use instincts when and because they feel good. Using an instinct stimulates the reward system. This causes the feelings of ecstasy, awe, and the other feelings associated with superstitious belief. Thatís the feeling science takes away from superstitious people. They donít like that. People are used to believing what "feels" right, not what is right. Critical thinking and the scientific method is hard work and doesnít feel good. Thatís the way humans have been structured by evolution and natural selection to date. Apparently, at this point in human evolution, concerning the human use of the superstition instinct, it feels better to utilize irrational answers than rational answers, at least for most people. Itís easy, fast, and feels good. Thus, the almost invariable use of irrational superstitious answers when confronted with unanswerable, and even answerable, questions by most people.
For the most part, instincts are located in the limbic region of the brain, and because of the difficulty the cortex has in altering limbic brain activity (LeDoux-The Emotional Brain), conscious or rational attempts to change instinctive beliefs have little effect, as you have discovered. This is why beliefs are so intransigent and stubborn, in my opinion. Itís damned hard to talk someone out of a belief, especially an irrational one. The more irrational, the harder it is to change.
I donít know exactly how to help people see that their beliefs are irrational and stupid, but I think that if they realize where these beliefs come from and how the brain uses instincts, they may see the sense in dumping or ignoring irrational beliefs. In other words, they may feel like believing them but they may choose not to believe them nonetheless, the only way I know to get rid of a prejudice.
Instead of telling the deluded that science can feel as good as their particular delusion, which it canít, tell them where their delusion originates (instincts). If they comprehend this concept, they may be able to reevaluate them and alter their beliefs. Otherwise, as you know, beliefs are believed willy-nilly. Realizing that beliefs come from a goofy instinct 40-50 thousand years old helps put into perspective their nonvalidity and lack of import. Believers can then see why loss of the ecstatic feelings of mystery is a poor excuse for holding onto the delusions. Manís greatest achievements come from counter-instinctive ideas, from using the scientific method rather than instincts.
Religion, a manifestation of the superstition instinct, is about relief of fear. The feelings religion stimulates, awe, reverence, and ecstasy are purely neurotransmitter derived and have nothing to do with the truth or absolute nature of the particular religious idea. The exact same feelings result from other irrational beliefs (astrology, gurus, UFOís, etc.) and thus, are no different from drugs that stimulate the same neurotransmitter receptors. The receptor stimulation just comes from an internal rather than an external chemical.
I developed these concepts in the building of a neurobiological paradigm for addictions, substances and behavioral. All addictions come from the same decision-making mechanism. The difference between people who get addicted to neurotransmitter substitutes (drugs) or behaviors (instinct derived neurotransmitter release) and those that donít is the critically low activity level of the FOKS within the decision-making apparatus caused by genetically transmitted low activity alleles of genes making up this system in just those people. I call them hypoics, hypo for low activity. The disease of addictions I call Hypoism. Hypoics get addicted to superstition just as they get addicted to sex, eating, falling in love, and for the same reasons. They get high from using the instincts just like nonhypoics do, but they also get addicted to them. Only hypoics can be addicts. Addiction is thus an unintended consequence of genetic diversity (multiple alleles of multiple genes) of the limbic system, evolutionary diversity of the FOKS within the decision-making apparatus.
I think that if the general population can be educated about their instincts, quantitatively and qualitatively, they may develop a better understanding of their goofy behaviors and beliefs. Thatís my opinion, anyway.
I just wanted to present you with some of these ideas which are in my book in more depth. The book is, Hypoicís Handbook, and can be gotten on-line at www.hypoism.com. I hope this perspective makes sense to you. Let me know what you think.
Dan F. Umanoff, M.D.
The critical points extracted from this conceptualization of superstition feeling like it is real and believed as such, relate to the problem we encounter between groups of people who either: 1) believe two different superstitious beliefs absolutely (for example, two opposing religions), both mistaking them for TRUTH, mistaking belief for reality and knowledge, and applying them to daily life as if they were valid for other people (non-believers), or, 2) attempt to argue rational and scientific method derived knowledge against superstitious belief, and vice versa (evolution vs. creationism), or use a superstition based belief in public policy arenas where not all people believe the same superstitions. To restate this problem: Because beliefs feel so good, they are being misrepresented as knowledge. On a personal level this is fine with me. But when this is done on a public level, it has dangerous and unpredictable consequences. It is not right or fair to those upon which it is being imposed.
People have the right to believe whatever they wish, for themselves as individuals, but not to impose these beliefs on others or to attempt to use them for policy purposes for the general public. By policy I mean either politically, in the public arena, or therapeutically, in the public medical arena. If individuals are so overcome by their beliefs as to use them for these purposes, something we would all define as clinical delusion, so be it. That's none of my business. When they mistake them for global reality, for example using prayer or spiritual dances instead of appropriate antibiotics for pneumonia, or refusing transfusions while bleeding to death, we give them that individual right, but not the right to impose it on others. Insisting on any specific religious or other superstitious belief being used in public situations would be considered the same. If your religion, as large or small as it may be, bans automobiles, then don't use them yourself, but don't impose that belief on the rest of the world.
The public arena of addictions currently is monopolized by these superstition based impositions. In the absence of evidence derived from the scientific method, believed treatments and policies are being imposed upon addicts and their families, despite their obvious ineffectiveness and detrimental effects (the drug war, criminalization of addictions, coerced treatments, loss of livelihoods, incomes and families, jails filled to overflowing) we refuse to admit their superstitious derivation and even try harder to make them work like fingers being stuck in a crumbling dam.
When I refer to superstitious belief, I'm not just talking about religions or weird cults, but actually about unproven beliefs in clinical psychology, psychiatry, and addictionology, a field run by these same people. For the most part, these seemingly intellectual areas are actually based on belief, anecdote, and mythology. (don't believe me, go find the valid studies that prove their theories and treatments and send them to me when you find them. they don't exist.) These beliefs are being pushed on a naive, trusting, and a basically ignorant public by experts as if they were reality based. Superstition is being misrepresented as reality. The experts in these areas have failed us for personal motives and that is fraud on a massive scale. Look around you. Do things make any sense whatsoever in the field of addictions? Are there practically as many theories and treatments as there are addicts and addictions? Is there any other field of medicine like this? Hasn't the scientific method changed all areas of medicine except addictions? Isn't it time we, the people, insisted that knowledge instead of belief be used in addictions like we insist upon in all other areas of medicine?
Understanding how we are using superstition instead of knowledge in this particular area of medicine because we are so ignorant and frightened is my attempt to awaken the sleeping masses (of addicts at least) who have so much to lose by making this mistake, irrespective of what the addictionologists have to gain by its perpetuation. Wake up people. Admit the mistake, and letís start over using the scientific method to produce knowledge instead of sticking blindly to the delusion of feel good belief. Superstition doesn't make cars run, airplanes fly, air-conditioners cool, light bulbs glow, or antibiotics cure infections. It doesn't produce or cure addictions either.
5/2/01 - Addendum to above:
Yesterday we heard about some work by Dr. Andrew Newberg who demonstrated through the SPECT camera (the acronym stands for single photon emission computed tomography) images of the brain during meditation of spiritualists major blood flow changes in parts of the brain associated with "spiritual" feelings. This is the first work moving towards a neurobiology of belief and superstition, exactly what the Hypoism hypothesis predicts. I have asked him about whether he showed changes in the limbic system and if he ever tried to show dopamine receptor activity in people in similar situations and am waiting for his reply. An article about this is at: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/GMA/GoodMorningAmerica/010301_gma_godexcerpt.html
Newberg's web site is at: http://www.andrewnewberg.com/default.asp for those interested in following this up.
After reading his two books mentioned below, I would add:
The best current neurobiological discussion of the superstition instinct is in, The Mystic Mind, by DíAquili and Newberg (1). Another more recent book by the same authors, Why God Wonít Go Away (2), discusses some additional SPECT scan experiments that add more scientific evidence to this brain phenomenon. The authors put it this way on page 86 of the former:
"Human beings have no choice but to construct myths to explain their world. The reason for this necessity is that as long as there remain unanswerable questions, the cognitive operators necessarily perform their functions even if they must generate gods, demons, or other "power sources" to do so: we must develop myths in order to find at least temporary solutions. Both explanatory and motivational stories (myths) are thus necessarily generated by the brain. Myths may be social in nature, or they may be individual in the form of dreams, daydreams, and other fantasy aspects of the individual person. Even science and the scientific method are a special type of myth that helps human beings explain the universe. [This last statement about the scientific method is absolutely incorrect. The scientific method is a set of strict rules used to differentiate science from nonsense, so please don't think I condone this sentence. I don't. But the rest of the quote is in agreement with my hypothesis and is the beginning of the study of brain mechanisms for the superstition instinct. As I say below, their understanding of superstition as a built-in brain mechanism is correct, however, their interpretation of it is faulty due to their religious biases. Please note the following bias and conflicts of interest, Newberg and D'Aquili are supported financially and otherwise by a religious organization (for the so-called purpose of the "reconciliation of science and religion,"), the John Templeton Foundation, hell bent on destroying the distinction between science and nonsense, and D'aquili's book, The Mystical Mind, was published by Fortress Press, a religious publishing company.] Nevertheless, as long as human beings are aware of the contingency of their existence in the face of what often appears to be a capricious universe they must construct myths to orient themselves within that universe. As we have stated, this constructive orientation is inherent in the obligatory functioning of the neural structures or operators we have described. We have referred to this as the cognitive imperative since it is a necessary behavior, most likely based on its evolutionary adaptiveness to use our mind/brain to order the universe into meaningful patterns. Because it is highly unlikely that human beings will ever know the first cause of every strip of reality observed, it seems that we will always generate gods, powers, and other entities as first causes to explain what we observe. Indeed, we cannot do otherwise."
The rest of the book uses current neurobiology to explain these phenomena as well as the causes of the various feeling states associated with various human experiences and uses of this part of the brain, all unconsciously derived except for the interpretations of them which have no actual basis in fact. The authors do a terrific job of this although their particular religious biases might be taken as proven when, indeed, they are but opinions of the authors based on their religious beliefs. Their major downfall comes in their analysis and misinterpretation of these phenomena as religious, spiritual, or mystical phenomena and that these biased interpretations have some meaning in reality which, of course, they donít. Otherwise, their understanding is quite similar to mine including the high degree of emotionality attached to them by the limbic system to which the superstitious cortical machinery is densely connected as well as the evolutionary psychological benefits of the instinct for humans. The obvious bias is compounded by their use of the words, mystical, religious, spiritual, and other supernatural terms instead of the generic term superstition, a word I favor because of its objectivity and generalizability absent any need to conjure up supernatural interpretations for these experiences.
The last evolutionary concept that humans need to acknowledge when they think and make decisions about how they use their evolution derived instincts, such as superstition, and the instinct regulating mechanism is: instincts derived in one, earlier, evolutionary time may have had important survival value at that time but in a later era may have purely detrimental effects on survival. In other words, instincts are a two edge sword. In fact, my entire theory of the evolutionary origin of addictions is based on this simple and unrecognized concept. I discuss this here: http://www.nvo.com/hypoism/thehypoismaddictionhypothesis/. In this article I discuss addiction as an unintended consequence of evolution (and genetic diversity) of the instinct regulating mechanism. The two edged sword of superstition is that at an earlier evolutionary time it enhanced survival of hunter gatherer groups, the social groups that existed at the time when the instinct evolved, a time when there was sparse population, but when used in todayís more complex and densely populated social world causes excessive conflict and mainly detrimental effects. What this realization can allow us to do is to, as a world group, ask ourselves the question whether we actually want to continue using the superstition instinct the way it evolved or in a new way, a way that actually may benefit us rather than hurt us, for example, as causing wars and genocides between differing religious groups, or even between addicts and non-addicts (the drug war Ė discussed here: http://www.nvo.com/hypoism/entitledtoyouropinionnotanymore/ ) With this new understanding of instincts we humans can begin to make more beneficial decisions for ourselves rather than passively following our instincts blindly. This can be the beginning of a new enlightenment that can prevent the destruction of all life on earth our present path will eventually cause.
1. Eugene G. díAquili and Andrew B. Newberg. The Mystical Mind - Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 1999
2. Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene d'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away - Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Random House, NY, NY, 2001