Maybe you were at the grocery store. Maybe walking along the sidewalk. Maybe sitting on a bus. And sure enough, when you turned your head to look, the suspect's eyes met yours.
You just had an anomalous experience.
The job of the conscious mind is to form a story out of all our sensations and reflections. Life as we experience it is not just a series of unconnected thoughts and events; it's a coherent narrative unfolding in an orderly universe. But sometimes we have experiences that don't fit our expectations and may even contradict what science has taught us is possible. In our attempts to accommodate such outlier phenomena, we often turn to unproven forces or entities. We start to believe in the paranormal.
Anomalous experience of this sort ranges from sensing a strange vibe in a room to feeling outside your own body. We often explain such experiences using concepts related to spirits, luck, witchcraft, psychic powers, life energy, or more terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) entities. Such explanations are often more appealing, or at least more intuitive, than blaming an odd experience on a trick of the mind.
One of the most common anomalous experiences is the sense of being stared at. When you see someone gazing directly at you, emotions become activated—it can be exciting or comforting or creepy—and this visceral charge can give the impression that gazes transfer energy. Further, if you feel uncomfortable and check to see whether someone is looking at you, your movement may draw attention—confirming your suspicions.
Another common experience is déjà vu, a phenomenon two in three people report. Most of us shrug it off as a mental hiccup. Indeed, researchers propose it's a sense of familiarity without a recollection of why something is familiar, or perhaps a timing issue in the brain where thoughts are experienced twice because of a slight wiring delay, lending the second occurrence an odd sensation of repetition. But some people believe it's a glimpse into a past life.
While anomalous experiences may be associated with stressful circumstances, personal pathologies, or cognitive deficits, the experiences themselves may not always be so bad, and may actually be healthy inventions. They're just our attempts to make sense of a weird situation. After all, there's nothing the mind likes better than a good story.
Alex and Donna Voutsinas were leafing through family photo albums a week before their wedding in 2002 when one picture caught Alex's eye. In the foreground was Donna, five years old, posing at Disney World with one of the Seven Dwarves. Behind them was Alex's father pushing a stroller. And in the stroller was Alex. The boy's family was visiting from Canada, and the two children would not meet until 15 years later. When he saw the photo, Alex said, "I got chills. It was just too much of a coincidence. It was fate."
Nearly anyone would get chills in such a situation, but it takes a lot less—hearing the same new word twice in an hour, meeting someone who shares our birthday—to make us pause and say, "Well, how about that!" Such moments occur when we spot patterns, an ability (and compulsion) built into the brain from the earliest stages of perception. Pattern-finding lets us make sense of sensory input (those four legs are part of a table) and to predict regularities in our environment (apples fall down, not up; they're often tasty; and throwing them makes people mad).
Pattern-finding is so central to survival and success that we see patterns everywhere, even in random data—a phenomenon called apophenia. We spot faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward. And while we expect some level of order in the world, on occasion our pattern-spotting gets away from us and makes a connection we wouldn't expect. When that happens, we demand, at least subconsciously, an explanation.
It turns out that our favorite kinds of explanations involve "agents"—beings capable of intentional action. The agent could be a person, a god, or a superintelligent robot. We're biased to blame even simple events on agents—spotting them or their footprints allows us to manage them if they are dangerous: It is better to mistake a twig for a snake than to mistake a snake for a twig.
Unconscious pattern recognition underlies a variety of automatic processes, including those we associate with accurate intuitions or a sixth sense (see II Psychic Abilities on page 2). Sensing danger in a combat zone or suddenly "knowing" that a partner is cheating or a friend is pregnant are instances in which we've pieced a pattern together wholly unconsciously. The suddenness with which it bursts into our consciousness can feel as if the hunch is born of clairvoyance.
Some people are too good at spotting patterns. In the run-up to his killing of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman noted all kinds of coincidences and saw them as signs to proceed. He once drew 50 connections between Holden Caulfield's time in New York City in The Catcher in the Rye and his own life there prior to the murder. He may have been suffering from schizophrenia, a disease characterized by overactive dopamine transmission. This neurotransmitter helps us find meaningful connections between things. But the same excessive pattern-finding that sends some people off the rails can lead others to be creative, as insight requires yoking distantly related ideas.
One way to interpret apparent order is to invoke a sign from "above." (Or bullying from above: A man whose house has received six meteorite strikes told a reporter, "I am obviously being targeted by extraterrestrials.") Other patterns lend themselves to conspiracy theories. (There's a significant correlation between belief in the paranormal and in conspiracies.)
A key trait that predicts a belief in conspiracy theories is paranoia. When paranoid, you're always on the lookout for agents (including secret agents) working against you. A bit of anxiety is good—it keeps you on your toes—but with high doses you could find yourself living in a cabin in the woods. A personality trait called "openness to experience" also enables paranoid beliefs, as curiosity and imagination invite new ideas, including those that are so fringe they strike others as paranoid. People who are distrustful and hostile are also likely to be suspicious of authority. And those with an external locus of control, who downplay their own influence on their lives, tend to blame things on other parties, including fate or secret cabals.
Another trait that may be responsible for beliefs in conspiracies, fate, and a sixth sense is the tendency to trust your hunches. In one study, intuitive subjects showed more referential thinking, which is the belief that people are talking about you or that everyday events like traffic light changes are meant specially for you.
Faith in intuition has been linked to other types of magical thinking, too. When intuitive, "gut-trusting" thinkers watched videos of alleged paranormal activity—UFOs and ghosts—they were more likely than other subjects to say they'd react emotionally if they were to witness the activity themselves. Our guts, apparently, really want to believe.