Not your average doctor; Dr. Michael Shermer sheds light on UFOs, out-of-body experiences
Published: Thursday, April 11, 2013
Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08
Dr. Michael Shermer came to the Student Union Theatre Wednesday night to shed light on seemingly out-of-this-world experiences.
Publisher of The Skeptic quarterly journal and executive director of the Skeptic Society, Shermer has spent his life dedicated to research on psychology, evolution and history. In his presentation to students and staff he sought to examine topics such as conspiracy theories, out- of-body-experiences and UFO sightings using the theories he has researched.
His magazine delves into a new topic every issue that some people are skeptical about and attempts to debunk it. One issue focused on artificial intelligence. Shermer joked, “We looked into it… we’re five years away – and always will be.”
Other issues that received attention were global warming and conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 and even the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook. What Shermer is looking for, however, is evidence and the “burden of proof” that falls on the person making a claim so different from everyone else’s beliefs.
Shermer based some of his argument that what a person thinks is reality on a evolutionary necessity that leads the brain to build patterns and associations in the world around us. He used the example that a hominid on the plains of Africa would have been better off assuming that a rustling from the wind was a predator rather than the wind. Therefore, it was better to have a false positive association. Thus, over-associating became a selected trait.
Optical illusions are one way to help explain the problem between the realities our brain is experiencing and what is actually occurring. Shermer discussed how the brain is trained to interpret the world in certain ways because of repetition in everyday life. For example, the Fusiform gyrus, a part of your brain whose main job is to detect faces, can do so even when there isn’t a normal face present. When the audience was shown two faces of Barack Obama upside down, no one found immediate fault with the version that had his eyes and mouth actually right side up inside the frame. This part of our brain also helps to explain how people can see faces on the surface of Mars or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich.
People have also claimed that they have had out-of-body experiences, or have died but come back to life. Shermer discussed research that shows that magnetic pulses and electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain can produce these same effects. Electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe has been shown to create feelings that the person is hovering over their own body, and the higher the current, the higher the person believes they are floating.
Many of the discrepancies between reality and what the individual is experiencing was explained by Shermer’s discussion of confirmation bias, in which people remember the information that already coincides with their beliefs, and patternicity, where people seek to make patterns out of random noise.
Shermer played a clip of a show he participated in with Bill Nye the Science Guy. He pretended to be a psychic and used topics such as a white car, a father figure and scraped knees to “read” people. Subjects, he said, were actually just picking up on the few things he was saying that actually connected to them. He also played “Stairway to Heaven” with the lyrics, then backwards without lyrics and then backwards with the perceived lyrics. Some people have found meaning in the random pattern of noises when the song is played backwards, and when the lyrics where shown while playing backwards, suddenly the audience could hear these perceived lyrics. A pattern was created out of random noise.
Addison Zhao, an 8th-semester psychology major, said that he was interested in bringing Shermer to campus to better understand “how people behave in weird ways,” and that he thought Shermer was a great choice because “he has spent his life studying this.”
Shermer’s latest book is called “The Believing Brain: From Ghost and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.” He was available after the presentation for book signings.