If you’ve picked up a newspaper, watched a TV, or checked your 401K in the past few months, there’s a near-perfect chance that you’ve experienced the full miasma of fear, anxiety, and helplessness that accompany loss of control. We hate that feeling—it’s a trait embedded in the human condition. And we’ll go to any lengths—including “developing” the ability to talk with the dead, see invisible patterns, and read the stars—in order to avoid it.
Sharon Begley at Newsweek writes that a whopping 90 percent of Americans either think they’ve experienced a paranormal event, or believe that they can happen. And when occurrences—like oh, say, worldwide financial crises—remind us just how futile our desire for order and control really are, our “ability” to see the future in tea leaves by no coincidence begins to rise. As Begley puts it:
Historically, such times have been marked by a surge in belief in astrology, ESP and other paranormal phenomena, spurred in part by a desperate yearning to feel a sense of control in a world spinning out of control.
There’s also the study in this month’s issue of Science finding that lack of control directly increases our “invisible pattern-seeing” ability (or perception of one). People primed with a sense of powerlessness saw more images in static, found more conspiracies in written stories, and imagined more patterns in financial markets than those who were left alone.
Granted, all of this is great fodder for scientists looking to study how the brain responds to the unknown. The truth, of course, is that the mind creates “supernatural abilities” and patterns to cope with the fear of random events, and the brain “fills in blanks” when things happen that don’t gel with our desire for a controlled order. This gap-filling might even have a beneficial purpose, providing answers (who cares if they’re wrong?) in times of crisis so the mind can focus on the tasks of survival.
Still, even knowing all this, it’s hard to resist the instinct to heed the occasional omen.
Bad Astronomy: A brilliant debunking of psychic powers