While planning for my talk at SkeptiCamp later this month, I discovered a recent special issue of the journal Cortex dedicated to studies of paranormal beliefs. One article in the issue that caught my attention looked at the correlation between body and brain asymmetry and belief in the paranormal. Günter Schulter and Ilona Papousek at the University of Graz, in Austria, found that asymmetries between finger lengths of the two hands were associated with greater belief in paranormal phenomena.
I'm always intrigued by these types of findings, but they often lead only to more questions. Many times, authors of this type of work will argue that the bodily asymmetry is suggestive of an underlying brain asymmetry as well (kudos to Schulter and Papousek for staying away from this line of reasoning). This is a problematic argument. Since this study is correlational, there could easily (and likely) be a third variable at play. For example, people whose faces are more symmetrical are perceived to be more beautiful (Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady, & Sumich, 1998). We all know that beautiful people are treated differently in our society, and social rejection seems likely to be correlated with magical thinking, paranormal belief, and religiosity. So, this relationship between physique and belief could have absolutely nothing to do with brain structure at all. One thing we do know, though, is that symmetrical people smell better!
There are many other interesting articles in the special issue. Be sure to check it out here.
Rhodes, G., Proffitt, F., Grady, J. M., & Sumich, A. (1998). Facial symmetry and the perception of beauty. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5, 659-669. Link
Schulter, G. & Papousek, I. (2008). Believing in paranormal phenomena: Relations to asymmetry of body and brain. Cortex, 44, 1326-1335.