Paranormal Beliefs Linked To Brain Chemistry
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PARANORMAL BELIEFS LINKED TO BRAIN CHEMISTRY
By Helen Philips
July 27, 2002
Whether or not you believe in the paranormal may depend entirely on your
brain chemistry. People with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find
significance in coincidences, and pick out meaning and patterns where there
Peter Brugger, a neurologist from the University Hospital in Zurich,
Switzerland, has suggested before that people who believe in the paranormal
often seem to be more willing to see patterns or relationships between
events where sceptics perceive nothing.
To find out what could be triggering these thoughts, Brugger persuaded 20
self-confessed believers and 20 sceptics to take part in an experiment.
Brugger and his colleagues asked the two groups to distinguish real faces
from scrambled faces as the images were flashed up briefly on a screen. The
volunteers then did a similar task, this time identifying real words from
Seeing and believing
Believers were much more likely than sceptics to see a word or face when
there was not one, Brugger revealed last week at a meeting of the Federation
of European Neuroscience Societies in Paris. However, sceptics were more
likely to miss real faces and words when they appeared on the screen.
The researchers then gave the volunteers a drug called L-dopa, which is
usually used to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson's disease by increasing
levels of dopamine in the brain.
Both groups made more mistakes under the influence of the drug, but the
sceptics became more likely to interpret scrambled words or faces as the
That suggests that paranormal thoughts are associated with high levels of
dopamine in the brain, and the L-dopa makes sceptics less sceptical.
"Dopamine seems to help people see patterns," says Brugger.
However, the single dose of the drug did not seem to increase the tendency
of believers to see coincidences or relationships between the words and
That could mean that there is a plateau effect for them, with more dopamine
having relatively little effect above a certain threshold, says Peter
Krummenacher, one of Brugger's colleagues.
Dopamine is an important chemical involved in the brain's reward and
motivation system, and in addiction. Its role in the reward system may be to
help us decide whether information is relevant or irrelevant, says Françoise
Schenk from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
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