Individuals who believe in the paranormal (things like ghosts, UFOs, and telepathy) may have distinct differences in their brain activity compared to skeptics, according to new research published in Scientific Reports. The findings point to a potential link between the intensity of paranormal convictions and the neural mechanisms governing inhibitory control, information processing, and cognitive function.
Paranormal beliefs encompass a wide array of ideas and superstitions, from the notion that spirits of the dead can communicate with the living to the fear that black cats can bring bad luck. While some people dismiss these beliefs as mere superstitions, others hold them with unwavering conviction.
This study, led by Abdolvahed Narmashiri of the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences, was motivated by the desire to understand the underlying factors that drive paranormal beliefs and explore how these beliefs might influence brain activity and cognitive functioning. Previous research has hinted at a connection between paranormal beliefs and certain cognitive processes, but the mechanisms behind this association remained shrouded in mystery.
The researchers recruited an initial sample of 33 individuals, who completed the Revised Paranormal Belief Scale, a widely used assessment of belief in paranormal phenomena. Only the most extreme groups, i.e., paranormal believers and skeptics, were included in the analysis. The final sample included 20 healthy right-handed students, with an equal gender distribution.
Participants had no history of psychosis, mental illnesses, chronic diseases, neurological issues, substance abuse, or epilepsy. Informed consent was obtained from all participants, and they received gifts for their participation.
The key focus was on behavioral performance in a specialized cognitive task known as the Go/No-Go task, which assesses inhibitory control. In this task, participants were required to make rapid decisions to either “Go” or “No-Go” based on visual cues. “Go” trials demanded a quick response, while “No-Go” trials necessitated inhibiting the impulse to act. The results of this task provided insight into the participants’ ability to exert control over their actions.
The participants also completed the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire, a measure used to assess everyday lapses in cognitive functioning, such as memory slips and attention lapses.
To delve deeper into the neural aspects of belief, the researchers utilized electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive technique that records the electrical activity of the brain by placing electrodes on the scalp. They examined various frequency bands (such as beta, alpha, and gamma) in different brain areas, focusing on frontal, parietal, occipital, and left and right hemispheres.
The researchers found that paranormal believers were more likely to make errors during No-Go trials in the Go/No-Go task compared to skeptics, indicating impaired inhibitory control in paranormal believers. The paranormal believers also reported significantly more general cognitive failures than skeptics.
Paranormal believers exhibited lower power in certain EEG frequency bands, specifically beta1 and beta2, in the parietal and occipital areas compared to skeptics. Intriguingly, beta2 frequency band activation in the frontal lobe emerged as a mediator between paranormal beliefs and inhibitory control. This suggested that the activity in this specific brain region might influence how paranormal believers exercise inhibitory control.
Paranormal believers also exhibited noteworthy reductions in both alpha and gamma power within their frontal lobes. These brain regions are critically involved in various high-level cognitive functions. The alpha rhythm is often associated with a state of relaxed alertness and is typically observed when an individual is awake but not actively engaged in mental tasks. On the other hand, gamma oscillations are closely tied to various cognitive processes, including perception, memory, and attention.
“In summary, the present study shows that paranormal belief is related to the reduced power of the alpha, beta, and gamma frequency bands, and reduced inhibitory control. This study will provide new insights into the role of differences between believers and skeptics in brain activity in paranormal believers,” the researchers concluded.
While this study offers valuable insights, it’s important to acknowledge its limitations. The researchers employed a relatively small sample size, primarily consisting of university students, which may not fully represent the broader population. Additionally, some gender differences in paranormal beliefs couldn’t be explored due to the sample size.
To further unravel the mysteries of paranormal beliefs and their impact on cognition, future studies with larger and more diverse populations are warranted. These studies could delve deeper into the relationship between paranormal beliefs and other cognitive functions, such as memory and attention.
The study, “Paranormal believers show reduced resting EEG beta band oscillations and inhibitory control than skeptics“, was authored by Abdolvahed Narmashiri, Javad Hatami, Reza Khosrowabadi, and Ahmad Sohrabi.