Hyperactive Agency Detection

Our Hyperactive Agency Detection is a basic function of human cognition.

“It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.” — James Boswell

The Magic of Magick

Popular culture is saturated with the supernatural. Browse any bookstore, turn on the TV, go to the movies, or indulge in gaming—supernatural content is a constant bestseller. I’m painting with a broad brush here. I’m not just talking of wizards and elves or magic and dragons. Genre-blending storylines teem with the supernatural: superheroes with powers that defy modern physics, Jedi who control some mystical “Force,” the cast of a space opera who can transport through solid objects, and zombies who come to get us from beyond “the Wall.” Medium and genre may change, but the appeal is the same. Fascination with the supernatural lives in us all.

Our ancestors were preoccupied with the supernatural. Before the enlightenment, it was a part of everyday life. Most people believed in magic and accepted that it influenced their world. Like wind, rain, and drought, magic was a force of nature to be feared and respected. It linked a cause to the effect of something that transcended their understanding. It’s how people explained the inexplicable.

It’s no accident that early deities were nature gods. They provided a framework for understanding the world. Take Zeus. Before Greeks understood the science of lightning, they personified it as a storm-bringing god of sky and thunder who used lightning as his spear.

Science swept away this thinking. Magic and the supernatural became sanitized, and they no longer intruded into the natural world. So why, if we are logical beings, are we fascinated by the supernatural?

Hyperactive Agency Detection

Some cognitive scientists point to our primitive instincts.  They say humans are hardwired to believe in the supernatural. Their theory goes that, even though the logical side of our brain tells us such things aren’t real, belief in the supernatural lies buried within our subconscious. They say we can’t help it, that it’s a response to our biological programming to seek meaning in everything and an instinct for survival passed down through evolution.

Imagine an ancient trekking through the forest:

A bush rustles behind him. He freezes, then turns but sees nothing. What caused it? A random gust of wind? A bird alighting? Better flee! It might be something acting with harmful intent. It could be a predator; it might be an enemy.

When something unseen happened to primitive man, it was instinct to seek explanation. Far better presume the cause to be a willful agent rather than a random act of nature—safer to assume intentionality than ignore it.

It would be more rational to check the bush nowadays. But in primitive times, the presumption of a malicious agent was an act of self-preservation. Even after our ability to reason advanced, happenings that defied rational explanation would be credited with a supernatural agency, because human nature impels us to extrapolate explanation:

A bush rustles behind me. I check it out, but no one is there. I feel no breeze, nor smell any odour, so something invisible must have caused it. I’d better flee! It might be a spirit out to do mischief.

If cognitive scientists are right, logic can’t eradicate our belief in the supernatural. There’s a cognitive bias called “Hyperactive Agency Detection” buried in our subconscious. Though we’re not aware of it, this agency detection surfaces when we feel threatened or stressed.

Sound far-fetched?  What about that time the computer crashed during a presentation, or when we were late for work and the car wouldn’t start, or when the appliance broke down just when we needed it? Think of the times you’ve cursed an object in the heat of the moment, as if the object was sentient and had acted maliciously. A flash of frustration? A knee-jerk reaction? No one seriously thinks a car is sentient. Rationally, we know it can’t spite us, and yet we act otherwise, as if inanimate objects have willful intent.

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Perhaps this is why even rational people are prone to supernatural thoughts. And why, even though they are not inclined to believe, they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Perhaps it’s a spontaneous reflex. Some spark in a dark corner of their subconscious triggers an emotional response that makes the irrational seem, if not plausible, then imaginable.

This would explain the widespread appeal of supernatural entertainment—why people can suspend logic for the sake of enjoyment of fiction. In my article about the suspension of disbelief, I describe how creators of speculative fiction persuade us to let go of reality and how they keep us invested in a story. But there must be something in our nature that makes us susceptible to the suggestion. The answer, it seems, is all in the mind.

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