Andrei Popov / 1234RF
Some research participants learned that a janitor had recently died in the room they were in. (Bank image)
Imagine this. You have just learned of the recent death of a janitor in a room where you are about to participate in a mindfulness study. And then the lights go out.
Dr Jesse Bering has published books on various topics such as sex, suicide, and God, but his main area of research remains the cognitive science of afterlife beliefs.
Research into such beliefs is often self-reported, which led Bering, director of the Center for Science Communication at the University of Otago, to design a study called “The ‘Ghost’ in the Lab.”
He wanted to see if people’s bodily reactions would betray their beliefs in the afterlife.
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“This is what motivated the study (…)
The participants were divided into two groups – control and experimental – and were led to believe that they were involved in a study of mindfulness and meditation. Preliminary questions online included a “smuggling question about their belief in the afterlife.”
Participants, with physiological measuring devices attached, watched a video clip of meditation, then left alone in a room to meditate.
After a few minutes, the researchers turned off the lights in the windowless room for seven seconds.
“We were measuring how their bodies reacted to the sudden appearance of darkness.”
The members of the experimental group had received a document revealing that a janitor had recently died in the room in which they were going to meditate.
Upon entering the room, they were also told that a ghost had recently been seen inside.
This “critical manipulation” was the main difference between the experimental group and the control group, Bering said.
The researchers wanted to know if they could determine who believed in the afterlife and who did not, based on participants’ physiological data when the lights went out.
“Ultimately, we determined that there was no difference between how people felt about life after death and how their bodies reacted if they were in the experimental condition.”
The physiological response of those who were informed of the janitor’s death – whether or not they believed in the afterlife – increased dramatically when the lights went out compared to those in the control group, he said. declared.
In the second version of the study, those who identified as non-believers chose to sit as far away from the “ghost” as was physically possible, choosing a seat much further away than those who believed in the dead. -of the.
Bering said it showed a tension between the mind’s default supernaturalism and its more logical thoughts.
The study, published in The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion, said his findings contributed to a “growing body of evidence suggesting significant discrepancies between people’s stated beliefs in the supernatural realm and their private psychology.”