Mind & Body

Superstitious? You've Got Nothing on These Scientists

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According to a probably apocryphal story about Niels Bohr, a visitor was once astonished to see a horseshoe hanging on the wall of the legendary physicist. "Surely you can't believe in that sort of superstitious nonsense," said the guest.

"Of course I don't believe in it," replied Niels. "But I understand that it works whether you believe it or not." As strange as this story sounds, superstitions in the lab aren't so uncommon. And even more incredibly, they might work. Kind of.

Throwing NaCl Over Your Shoulder

It might not be too much of a surprise that scientists can be victims of superstition like the rest of us. They're only human, after all. Still, it's a bit of a shock that, for example, Pierre and Marie Curie were somewhat taken with mediums who claimed to have contacted the Afterlife, or that Jack Parsons, a founding member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, was also heavily involved in both the occult practices of Aleister Crowley and the early days of Scientology.

Of course, what's even more common are those little superstitions that people act out because, well, they just feel right. A 2017 article in Nature got scientists from all different disciplines to admit the sometimes bizarre rituals they rely on to get their desired results.

Take, for example, "Rock Ness," a Loch Ness Monster–shaped stone that brings luck to archaeologists at Oregon State University. We're also a big fan of ornithologist Walt Koenig, who thanks the acorn woodpeckers that he studies in the wild by kissing them on the forehead and telling them "Live long and prosper." (It's even better if you know that he shares a name with the actor who played Ensign Chekov on "Star Trek.") Some rituals take on a more serious note, too — in Japan, universities often hold annual memorial services to pay their respects to the animals who died as a result of their experiments.

We understand that humans naturally gravitate toward rituals like these, whether they're scientifically minded or not. But what really blew our minds is the fact that there might actually be something to the superstition.

A Real Effect (That's All in Your Head)

According to a study put together by Allison Wood Brooks and Juliana Schroeder, rituals can play a major role in how the human brain deals with stress. They designed a series of anxiety-inducing tasks, including singing "Don't Stop Believin'" in front of their peers and completing a difficult math test. They also made up a series of random actions that they characterized as a ritual: participants had to draw a picture of how they were feeling, sprinkle salt on the drawing, crumple up the paper, and throw it in the trash. Some participants were made to perform their stressful tasks without completing the ritual first, others were asked to complete the ritual for good luck, and others were asked to perform the exact same ritual but were explicitly told that it was a meaningless series of random instructions.

What they found was that the people who performed the ritual as a ritual (and not just as random instructions) showed the least signs of physiological stress. When they had to sing, they sang better, they had lower heart rates, and they reported feeling less anxiety. For the math test, they still reported roughly the same level of anxiety — but their performance was still improved and their heart rate betrayed an easier feeling.

So maybe that explains it. Science is a stressful thing to practice, and a little ritual can be the difference between gamely soldiering through a failed experiment and breaking all your pipettes in a fit of frustration. Unless you need to do that for good luck, that is.

How Superstitions Work

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Written by Reuben Westmaas December 27, 2017

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