The Religious Lives of Finnish Mind Readers

In the vast body of scientific writing on religion, there's a subset of research that focuses on connections between spiritual belief and the brain—as an academic might put it, the "cognitive biases" that underlie faith. And within that group, there's an even smaller subset that focuses, at least in small part, on Finnish mind readers.

To be fair, it's possible that this research is limited to one paper, onerously titled "Ontological Confusions But Not Mentalizing Abilities Predict Religious Belief, Paranormal Belief, and Belief in Supernatural Purpose," slated to be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Cognition. In it, three neuroscientists from the University of Helsinki set out to determine how much people's "social and emotional abilities" influenced their supernatural or religious beliefs, including faith in the existence of God and/or an interest in "astrology, telepathy, precognition, witchcraft, superstition, spiritualism, and psychokinesis." Using a sample of 2789 Finns, the researchers tested for a number of factors they thought might influence the participants' spiritual beliefs, including "self-reported affective and cognitive empathy (i.e., mind reading)."

Apparently, researchers have long been getting people to self-assess their telepathic ability, which may have made it easier for the authors to casually drop that reference to mind reading into a sentence otherwise stuffed with academic jargon. Over email, the lead researcher, Marjaana Lindeman, explained the tests her team used to determine people's self-reported ability perceive the thoughts of others:

We had several questions in three scales. The first scale was a questionnaire with 15 statements. The scale included such statements as “I can sense if I am intruding, even if the other person does not tell me,” [and] “I really enjoy caring for other people.” The participants were asked to indicate their agreement with these items. We also asked the participants to rate how touching they find a set of photographs about distressed individuals. Finally, we used the Adult Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. It includes photographs of the eye-region of the face of different actors and actresses and the participants are asked to indicate what a person in the picture is thinking or feeling.

Originally used in autism research, the Adult Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test uses images of people's eyes, asking participants to determine what emotion the person in the picture is experiencing. For this set of eyes, an example that has been used in previous studies, participants have to identify whether the person is alarmed, ashamed, bewildered, or serious (the correct answer):

For this set, participants must identify whether they eyes are aghast, irritated, impatient, or reflective (the correct answer):

The researchers were interested in finding out about the participants' mind-reading abilities in order to test what they describe as a common hypothesis in the scientific literature: that the ability to perceive or project people's thoughts and emotions indicates a way of thinking that also makes people more likely to believe in the paranormal or be religious. They call this "mentalizing." Mind-reading is a particularly important kind of "mentalizing," they argue, because some scholars have suggested that "the abilities to read the mental states of others may be related to mentalizing biases." In other words, they're guessing that mind readers are more likely to believe in things like ghosts and God.

Unfortunately, that hypothesis didn't find much support here: "The idea that the ability to reason about the thoughts, desires, and emotions of other people is intertwined with those cognitive biases that bear supernatural beliefs out received weak support," the researchers wrote. But, Lindeman added in an email, "people who were good at understanding how other people think and feel, but whose understanding of the physical world was inadequate, believed in [the] supernatural more than others."

That idea supports the major finding of the study, which is that "core ontological confusion" is the best predictor of supernatural or religious beliefs. These "confusions" are "mistakes where the fundamental properties of mental and physical phenomena, animate and inanimate beings, and living and lifeless objects are mixed," Lindeman wrote in an email. "For example, one may believe that a lifeless statue is like a living organism who hears prayers."

In other words, this study of 2789 Finns found that people who believe that inanimate objects can hear prayers or have souls are more likely to believe in the supernatural. Go figure.

But even though the mind reading thing didn't bear out, Lindeman and team did mention one fascinating discovery they made in the course of their research: "Women have better mentalizing abilities and more supernatural beliefs than men."