Do you believe in ghosts? Cognitive science says your brain could be wired differently

By Connie Lin

May 05, 2022

Nestled high in the mountains of Colorado, there’s a hotel that inspired the waking nightmares of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. Built in 1909 by steam-car inventor F.O. Stanley, the estate is rich with paranormal lore. For one, it’s crawling with spirits: Bellhops claim ghosts have unpacked visitors’ bags, and hallway lights flicker from time to time. Stanley’s long-dead wife, Flora, can be heard playing piano music late at night. Stanley himself moves in and out of old photographs.

But if you believe the stories, that might be because of the way your brain is wired—or at least 40 years of research thinks so.

That’s according to a new paper from a United Kingdom university, which reviewed over 70 studies from 1980 through 2020, all probing the cognitive functions of folk who believe in paranormal phenomena, such as hauntings, telekinesis, and clairvoyance. And the findings, authors say, boost the hypothesis that supernatural believers share unique mental behavior in areas like reasoning, memory, and thinking style.

For example, there was a consistent link between ghost-story belief and what’s classified as “intuitive” thinking (versus “analytical”), as well as some weaker links to verbal creativity and disordered, random thought patterns.

Compared to skeptics, believers also had stronger confirmation bias (a tendency to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs), as well as stronger disconfirmation bias (a tendency to dismiss information that contradicts their beliefs). They also generally exhibited worse reasoning skills, although authors note those findings were inconsistent.

Despite that, it’s been documented that paranormal belief is significantly less common in academics studying fields like the hard sciences, medicine, or psychology—all very logical disciplines—compared to those in religion, the arts, or teaching. Lower belief scores were also observed in those with higher education, while higher belief scores were seen in more extroverted or neurotic people.

Unfortunately for believers, the U.K. report also supports a past conclusion that paranormal belief is linked to cognitive deficits—60% of studies associated belief with poorer cognitive performance. But again, the authors note those findings are flawed. For one, many studies lacked subject pools that were diverse in age or academic background. They also used a mishmash of scales for measuring belief. Another perhaps telling point: Many failed to even include a section describing limitations, suggesting they may have been blind to their own blind spots.

If you’re one of the thousands who’ve made the pilgrimage to America’s spookiest hotel, you might be a kook. But you’re hardly alone: A 2017 Halloween survey of the British public found 33% believed in the supernatural, and another 21% are wavering. A chunk of them reported experiencing their own otherworldly encounters.

So, fear not—your brain is probably just fine. It’s only the ghosts in your head.