The Brain Issue: Very superstitious


Celia Bergman

As the saying goes, “what we don’t understand, we can make mean anything.” Now, try depicting this image or read to find out what it entails.

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

At 6 years old, this so-called harmless saying instilled the fear of God in me. After all, how was a child supposed to know it was nothing more than an innocent rhyme? Alas, this unnerving phrase began to manifest in the back of my mind as something I couldn’t escape. While bouncing around in Hopscotch, playing Four Square at recess and even during Friday night games of Kick the Can with my neighbors, I moved, petrified. 

Over a decade later, I still find myself getting tripped up over ludicrous superstitions. But I am not alone. According to Gallup News, one in every four Americans believe in a supernatural cause that may lead them to certain consequences of an action, event or practice based on such a belief. 

Jane Risen, a student from the University of Chicago, conducted a study in 2016 on the psychological aspect of fixating on these puzzles. Risen found that the interaction of both “fast” and “slow” (or rather dual processes) forms of cognition suggest that one set of mental processes operates more frequently and automatically in order to provide an initial form of intuition. The other operates slowly on purpose due to its responsibility for controlling intuitive judgments upon detecting an error. She also analyzes how superstitious beliefs are concealed by most people due to how, in hindsight, some views come off as more or less irrational, like deeming walking under a ladder as unlucky. Risen’s research illustrates how our initial thoughts and behaviors can sound foolish and yet are accepted regardless.

Moreover, superstitions stem from the environments in which we are raised. As humans, we are creatures of habit. In this case, it means we learn behaviors through a simple reinforcement process. By no means were you born with a preconceived notion that black cats crossing the street were bad luck, you simply learned by example. Your family, as well as other significant influences, such as culture and social media, are recognized as key contributors in regards to shaping your brain, as the American Psychological Association reports.

According to Gallup News, one in every four Americans believe in a supernatural cause that may lead them to certain consequences of an action, event or practice based on such a belief. ”

However, don’t blame your loved ones for any outspoken projections. New World Encyclopedia clarifies how these folklores date back to centuries ago. The superstition that a broken mirror will lead to seven years of bad luck stems from ancient Roman times, where it was assumed that the reflection of somebody inside a mirror was actually his or her soul. The legend has it that breaking said mirror would essentially damage a soul or trap it inside. On the flip side, this is a tad different from more elementary style tales such as the dangers of opening an umbrella indoors, as well as the uncertainties that not physically knocking on wood after repeating the phrase bring, due to its fuzzier origin.

Nonetheless, not all superstitions imprint negative connotations. The University of Southern California Dornsife explained how each culture offers a unique set of understandings into subcultures of their own people. Have you ever heard of how Spaniards will eat twelve green grapes for twelve months of good luck? Or rather the adopted outlook from Russians on how bird droppings are merely a sign of good fortune? Or even how the number eight in Chinese sounds similar to the word prosperity, representing instances from scheduling marriages that involve this number to the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing that began at 8:08pm on Aug. 8? Chances are, you’re more likely to be familiar with the biased awareness of superstitions that may hold some truth to their name, such as Friday the 13th.

Of course, let’s not disregard our own naive thinking as children. Who didn’t flush ice cubes down the toilet, put an orange in the freezer and sleep with a fork underneath their pillow in hopes for a day off anytime there were even whispers of snow? Wishful thinking was an understatement. Searching mindlessly for four leaf clovers in a soccer field, crossing my fingers behind my back upon begging my dad for Oberweis and even clearing my dream catcher each night in an attempt to rid the evil spirits from my nightmares led me toward a warm, safe haven of comfort.

Call me a fool, but these tales will forever be ingrained in my brain. What can I say? It’s not my fault that if you step on a spine then you’ll break your mother’s spine; it’s simply the truth.