Oct 11 2012

Can Paranormal Experience be Found in the Brain? (part 2)

Published by at 8:34 pm under Consciousness,PSI

Part 1 of this series explored some historical background to the question, in which we learned that psychic phenomena might be related to the uterus.

Today, we look at believers and non-believers also known, respectively, as

Sheep and Goats

The designation of “sheep”or “goat” finds its basis in a story from the Bible, about a shepherd and his flock. The sheep in the story represent those who believe in God, and the goats represent those who do not (Wilson, 2006, p. 37). Why are some people sheep and others goats? Are the sheep merely delusional?

In yesterday’s post, I referenced Carlos Alvarado’s survey of the 19th Century medical explanations for psi phenomena, which included “mediomania” and “morbid nonparanormal states of the nervous system.” While the terminology has changed, and technology for studying the brain has improved, many of the underlying assumptions have not. So called “paranormal” or psi events (according to some) might simply be in the eye of the beholder. There might be perfectly reasonable and “normal” explanations for That Weird Thing That Happened, but it is the experient’s belief that attributes paranormal meaning to it.

According to neurologist Peter Brugger, this belief may not be a “belief” so much as a result of brain chemistry. Paranormal beliefs may be linked to dopamine levels in the brain; higher levels of dopamine making it “more likely to find significance in coincidences and pick out meanings and patterns where there are none” (Philips, 2001, ¶1). Whkile this might suggest that believers are delusional, the reality may not be so cut and dried. In statistics, perception of a pattern where none exists is known as a “type 1” error (Wilson, 2006, p. 37).  A “type 2” error is failure to perceive an existent pattern. Brugger sees evolutionary and cognitive benefits to pattern recognition.

From an evolutionary perspective, the price for protection against type 2 errors is a susceptibility to type 1 errors. If you miss the tiger hidden in the grass, then you are dead. If you always see tigers, you are always running away, but you’re not dead (as quoted in Wilson, 2006, p. 37).

The question ultimately becomes “when does pattern recognition become pathological?”  I will return to this question momentarily.

In addition to his work with dopamine, Brugger and co-authors Alex Gamma, René Muri, Markus Schäfer and Kirsten Taylor found neuro-physical correlates to a variety of personality tests that seemed to indicate a connection between right brain hemisphere activity and belief in the paranormal. Their 1993 article, Functional Hemispheric Asymmetry and Belief in ESP, details a series of experiments involving visual testing on a variety of subjects, that resulted in such a correlation. In 2000, Brugger, as part of a team led by Diego Pizzagalli of the University of Wisconsin, was able to establish the connection even further through the use of EEG readings. In this study, the EEG readings of 85 subjects were recorded by placing 35 electrodes on their scalps, and measuring their brain waves during periods of rest. They found that

[s]ubjects differing in their declared paranormal belief displayed different active, cerebral neural populations during resting, task-free conditions. As hypothesized, believers showed relatively higher right hemispheric activation and reduced hemispheric asymmetry of functional complexity (Pizzagalli, et all, 2000, 139-40).

This correlation of the right hemisphere to paranormal beliefs has caused some researchers to also consider schizotypy as a cause for belief in some “sheep.”

Schizotypy, or Schizotypal Personality Disorder, is defined by the DSM-IV TR as follows:

Individuals with schizotypal personality disorder often have ideas of reference (i.e., incorrect interpretations of causal incidents and external events as having a particular and unusual meaning specifically for the person)…these individuals may be superstitious or preoccupied with paranormal phenomena that are outside the norms of their subculture (p. 697).

The term “subculture” is especially important here, and I will revisit it in tomorrow’s post.

There is one further possible “cause” for some people being sheep, and others goats, according to parapsychologist Harvey J. Irwin. While at first, it may not appear to be a physical correlate of paranormal belief, childhood trauma has emerged as a possible cause of such belief structures. Irwin, in a series of studies, has been able to show that

…a relationship between paranormal belief and fantasy proneness certainly has been documented (Irwin, 1990, 1991b). This observation is of particular significance to the issue of the psychological origins of paranormal belief because an etiological factor in the development of fantasy proneness is a history of childhood trauma (Irwin, 1994, p. 108).

Irwin further suggests that traumatic experience “evokes in the person a need for a sense of control over life events,” which can be facilitated by the embracing of paranormal belief, using it to attribute meaning to said events (p. 108).

Tomorrow, in Part 3, I will offer some critiques to Irwin and the diagnosis of Schizotypy.




  • American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM IV TR). Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  • Brugger, P., Gamma, A., Muri, R., Schäfer, M., and Taylor, Kirsten I. (1993). Functional Hemispheric Asymmetry and Belief in ESP: Towards a “Neuropsychology of Belief”. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 77(3 part 2), 1299-1308.
  • Irwin, Harvey J. (1994). Childhood Trauma and the Origins of Paranormal Belief: A Constructive Replication. Psychological Reports, 74, 107-111.
  • Philips, Helen. (2002). Paranormal Beliefs Linked to Brain Chemistry. Retreived August 7, 2006 from http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn2589&print=true
  • Pizzagalli, E., Lehmann, D., Gianotti, L., Koenig, T., Tanaka, H., Wackermann, J., and Brugger, P. (2000). Brain Electric Correlates of Strong Belief in Paranormal Phenomena: Intracerbral EEG Source and Regional Omega Complexity Analyses. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 100, 139-154
  • Wilson, Clare. (2006). Glad to be Gullible; Some People Believe in the Weirdest Things. They May Be on to Something. New Scientist. Retrieved August 7, 2006, from http://web.lexis-nexis.com.ncc1701.watson.jfku.edu:8080/universe/printdoc.




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