Dopamine and the paranormal

5th September 2021. Reading Time: 11 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 2747 page views. 0 comments.

Does our belief in the paranormal come down to brain chemistry? Is dopamine the reason we seek patterns in the way we interpret information? If no two brains are the same, what does it mean for interpreting paranormal experiences on a wider scope?

Much about what we think about the paranormal comes down to our own perception.  Two people can be in the same room and experience the same thing, yet come to two completely different conclusions.  While one may think it is a natural cause, the other could link it to being something paranormal.  One of the things we tend to do is to seek out patterns.  This plays a major role in what some think of as paranormal.  While some think this is just a random occurrence, others believe there could be more to it.

Is it random or is it synchronicity?

This concept of Synchronicity was first brought to the limelight by an analytical psychologist by the name of Carl Jung. The concept was first coined in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1950's that he produced a paper "Synchronizität als ein Prinzip akausaler Zusammenhänge" (Synchronicity – An Acausal Connecting Principle) explaining this revelation. The concept is fairly simple and is best described in his own words.

Synchronicity: A meaningful coincidence of two or more events where something other than the probability of chance is involved.

Also described as a 'meaningful coincidence', Jung was a big believer in the paranormal. He felt that if there were two randomly connected events that had no casual relationship but this connection held some sort of significant meaning, he felt something else was at work and called this 'synchronicity'.


Searching for patterns

Our brain is 'wired' to look for patterns.  When we look at something, our brain is trying to make sense of it so it interprets it in a way that is familiar to us.  It is why when we see clouds, it makes us see the shapes of animals.  It is why we see faces in the mist.   It is what many of us in the paranormal refer to as pareidolia.

This phenomenon is a form of apophenia which is where the brain tries to make sense out of patterns of data. It is thought that this psychological phenomenon was a form of survival that we have inherited from our ancestors.

"As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper."

Carl Sagan

The Demon Haunted World 1995

If a baby did not recognize its parents, it would interact and smile less. It is thought that the brain was 'wired' to recognize the faces to be able to form bonds with its parents. When your child sees your face, it often lights up with a smile, even from those early weeks. The brain was trained to recognize faces.

Clustering illusion is a cognitive bias that is almost a way of applying pareidolia to how we interpret data.   Our brain looks for a pattern in what is really just something random

A simple way to understand this illusion is to imagine casting ten pennies in a one foot square space. Unless all of the pennies fall in an exactly even distribution, which is extremely improbable, some pennies will be closer to each other than others and seem to form a cluster or group solely from the random distribution.

It's sometimes called the "hot hand fallacy" due to the belief common among basketball coaches and players that it was best to use players on a hot streak (i.e., those who had a "hot hand"). A study demonstrated that the hot hand was a matter of coaches picking a short run of baskets out of a larger sequence that was more or less random.[1] Though there some dispute that the researchers defined "hot hand" (i.e., making exactly 1 basket following another) differently than basketball players actually conceptualize it (in a vaguer sense).

The first thing I think about here is the term data that we talked about above.  When we think about data and the paranormal, we think about 'evidence'.  A lot of what we do as paranormal investigators is collecting 'evidence' or 'data' to try and see if we can find anomalies or patterns that fit with our theory or belief of something being paranormal.  A typical example here could be looking at the results of a data logger.  There could be random spikes or drops in temperature which really don't mean anything, but because as investigators we have a belief that temperature spikes or drops could indicate a spirit trying to manifest itself, we are automatically going to assume that is what this data set is telling us.  Of course, this doesn't mean that the data is trying to tell us something, it just means we have to be mindful when interpreting it - the same way we have to be mindful when we are reviewing audio or looking at photos.

People also use the clustering illusion and apply it to real-life events.  A lot of psychics for example that go through different ESP testing may have one particular set where they test significantly higher.  Often they will use this as a form of proof of their ability when in reality it could just be a 'lucky streak' based on chance.  How you interpret all of this again comes back to what you believe.  When we think about something, we start to notice it more and more.  For example, if you think about a red car, suddenly you will start to see red cars everywhere.  It is because a red car has suddenly become significant to you.  

While this is all based on an understanding of it being cognitive, what if it is actually chemical?

Is it chemical?

While we tend to think that people perceive things based on their belief systems and experiences, it could be something much simpler.  It could be chemical.  Dopamine is a form of neuro-transmitter.  It is a chemical produced by the body and then used by the nervous system to send messages between different nerve cells.  It makes us feel things in a certain way.  It acts like a reward system.  It releases when we eat a food we like, have a good social interaction or maybe even a paranormal experience.  It makes us want to do it more and more because it makes us feel good.  It also influences how we make our decisions.  While we tend to look from a more psychological perspective as to why people may be more inclined to think something is paranormal, it could be as simple as dopamine.  

Researchers have even tested to see if dopamine plays a part in paranormal belief.

Dopamine (DA) is suggested to improve perceptual and cognitive decisions by increasing the signal-to-noise ratio. Somewhat paradoxically, a hyperdopaminergia (arguably more accentuated in the right hemisphere) has also been implied in the genesis of unusual experiences such as hallucinations and paranormal thought. To test these opposing assumptions, we used two lateralized decision tasks, one with lexical (tapping left-hemisphere functions), the other with facial stimuli (tapping right-hemisphere functions). Participants were 40 healthy right-handed men, of whom 20 reported unusual, "paranormal" experiences and beliefs ("believers"), whereas the remaining participants were unexperienced and critical ("skeptics"). In a between-subject design, levodopa (200 mg) or placebo administration was balanced between belief groups (double-blind procedure). For each task and visual field, we calculated sensitivity (d') and response tendency (criterion) derived from signal detection theory. Results showed the typical right visual field advantage for the lexical decision task and a higher d' for verbal than facial stimuli. For the skeptics, d' was lower in the levodopa than in the placebo group. Criterion analyses revealed that believers favored false alarms over misses, whereas skeptics displayed the opposite preference. Unexpectedly, under levodopa, these decision preferences were lower in both groups. We thus infer that levodopa (1) decreases sensitivity in perceptual-cognitive decisions, but only in skeptics, and (2) makes skeptics less and believers slightly more conservative. These results stand at odd to the common view that DA generally improves signal-to-noise ratios. Paranormal ideation seems an important personality dimension and should be assessed in investigations on the detection of signals in noise.

Dopamine, paranormal belief, and the detection of meaningful stimuli
Peter Krummenacher 1, Christine Mohr, Helene Haker, Peter Brugger

Dopamine levels are also said to be critical for memory recall.  

Pattern completion, the ability to retrieve complete memories initiated by partial cues, is a critical feature of the memory process. However, little is known regarding the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying this process. To study the role of dopamine in memory recall, we have analyzed dopamine transporter heterozygous knockout mice (DAT+/−), and found that while these mice possess normal learning, consolidation, and memory recall under full cue conditions, they exhibit specific deficits in pattern completion under partial cue condition. This form of memory recall deficit in the dopamine transporter heterozygous knockout mice can be reversed by a low dose of the dopamine antagonist haloperidol, further confirming that the inability to retrieve memory patterns is a result of dopamine imbalance. Therefore, our results reveal that a delicate control of the brain's dopamine level is critical for pattern completion during associative memory recall.

Balanced Dopamine Is Critical for Pattern Completion during Associative Memory Recall
Fei Li ,L. Phillip Wang ,Xiaoming Shen ,Joe Z. Tsien 

When you look at it in terms of how it makes us feel, I can't help but make comparisons of the 'paranormal bug' that we all seem to catch.  We just can't seem to get enough.  Every time we leave an investigation we feel like we are on a high.  We are counting down for the next one.  We talk about it on social media (another dopamine trigger).  We watch tv shows and if you are me read paranormal books,  It all feeds into this need to research or investigate the paranormal.  This is the dopamine talking.  We talk about the FOMO or paranormal withdrawals we are having when we see someone out there doing what we wish we were doing.  This is the dopamine talking.  We need to ask, how much does dopamine influence our paranormal experiences?  Could our brains be making us think something is paranormal because it wants that hit of dopamine?

We know that we can work with cognitive bias by employing things such as critical thinking, but what if it is caused by the chemicals in our brain?   While medications and certain medical issues can affect a person's dopamine levels, simple good lifestyle practices can go a long way in raising dopamine levels.  It can be as simple as getting enough sleep, exercising, listening to music, meditating and spending time in the sun, which can all boost dopamine levels.  It doesn't change the fact that our brain chemistry is all different.

"Like with fingerprints, no two people have the same brain anatomy, a study has shown. This uniqueness is the result of a combination of genetic factors and individual life experiences."

University of Zurich

It means that in a lot of ways it is unfair of us to say that someone was hallucinating or someone was seeing this etc when we don't actually know the intricate workings of their brain.  I myself I guess think that while we talk above about looking at patterns, should we be looking at paranormal experiences as a whole collectively and seeing what similarities or patterns are within them?  A lot of the work I have been doing lately which you may have noticed is collecting the experiences of people.  I am looking for trends.  What is similar, what is different?  These are people that in a lot of cases have not met and are on the opposite side of the World and have had strikingly similar experiences.  While we know that some of what we experience is proven to be a function of how the brain processes information, how do we know for sure that is what has happened in each case?  Are we looking too hard for things or are we not looking hard enough?

I don't know the answers obviously, at this point I am just musing out loud,  but I am curious as to what you think!  Should we focus less on our own experiences and look at the phenomena itself as a whole?


Dopamine, paranormal belief, and the detection of meaningful stimuli
Peter Krummenacher 1, Christine Mohr, Helene Haker, Peter Brugger

Balanced Dopamine Is Critical for Pattern Completion during Associative Memory Recall
Fei Li ,L. Phillip Wang ,Xiaoming Shen ,Joe Z. Tsien,brain%20function%20at%20its%20best.

Cover Photo by meo from Pexels

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