Monthly Archives: July 2008

CosmosGAL is All Shook-Up

Yesterday evening, I was talking on the phone to a Los Angeles TV production company about a project (more about that later) when the woman I was talking to suddenly stopped dead in mid-sentence and announced they were having an earthquake. Obviously she had more important things to attend to, so I hung up. When I called back the line was dead. I was truly concerned as these things come in waves.

It turns out that everyone was ok. Apparently LA was hit by a 5.4 quake which although moderate on the Richter scale is still pretty scary. Where’s the SuperSense in any of this you might ask? None really, unless you think that there are some among us who should be able to predict such events.

CosmosGAL is an astrologist (ok not a psychic) but she does predict people’s futures. She did not pick up this event on her psychic radar but it is worth watching her reaction as the earthquake interrupts her show.

Thanks for sending this Arno


Filed under General Thoughts

If You Want to Get Ahead…..(update)

The use of human body parts in medicine has a long history. For example, the medieval weapon salve was a popular treatment for wounds of conflict in the dark ages. It was believed that enacting a cure upon the weapon that had inflicted an injury could heal wounds. Paracelsus, the renowned 15th century Swiss alchemist, provided the following recipe for one such weapon salve.

“Take of moss growing on the head of a thief who has been hanged and left in the air; of real mummy; of human blood, still warm – of each one ounce; of human suet, two ounces; of linseed oil, turpentine, and Armenian bole – of each two drachms. Mix all well in a mortar, and keep the salve in an oblong, narrow urn.”

One would imagine that such practices would have been abandoned in today’s modern era of antibiotics. However, in Africa where belief in witchcraft and magic is still very prevalent, there are continuing reports of similar practices. Earlier this month, police in Gabon arrested a gang of grave robbers who had been removing body parts to be used in Muti (magic) rituals. According to the article, skulls in particular were valued around $620 on the black market, which is a vast amount of money in such an impoverished country.

At least the donors were already dead. What is more worrying are the reports of murder of individuals for body parts. For a sufficient amount of South African Rand, a witch doctor or Muti man can bury a beckoning human hand at the entrance of your new shop to encourage trade. The practice is, of course, illegal but that does not stop Muti killings that take place each year to satisfy the demand for body parts.

And it is no longer restricted to the African continent. The dismembered floating torso of the boy (referred to Adam) found in the London Thames river in 2001 was widely regarded as first example of a ritualistic Muti killing in the UK. It is no coincidence that the victims are often children. Not only are they the most vulnerable but they are also regarded as most potent in vital energy. Belief in vital energy that can be absorbed by another is one dark side of human irrationality.

Later I hope to post how such beliefs have infiltrated the cosmetics industry.


I wanted to update you on the Adam story with this fascinating interview with the botanical expert at Kew Gardens who analysed the contents of the victim’s stomach… what an extraordinary clash between modern science and voodoo… Listen out for the completely tasteless remark from the linking journalist at the end of the piece.



Filed under supernatural

Scientist Dies

I did not know Randy Pausch. I did not know his work. He was a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist who was the same age as me. And he just died a couple of hours ago. His last lecture became an internet phenomenon with over 3.5 million hits on You Tube. Watch it. It will really put all your problems into perspective.  

It is gratifying that in this day of instant celebrity based on no tangible skill or ability that the most humble scientist, someone like Randy Pausch can be so important. 

Enough said..


Filed under General Thoughts

Taking the P*ss or What?

Ok so this posting will not go down so well but hell, we have to understand the whole of human behavior

Drinking one’s own urine is not uncommon. It is widespread in India, can be found in a number of religious teachings and is recommended by alternative therapists for the treatment of a variety of ailments.

Urine mostly consists of water and urea with a bunch of other compounds and metabolites. These are excreted as surplus to requirement as part of the natural digestive process of the human body. From what I have been able to discover there are no firm grounds for accepting the claims that drinking urine can be beneficial to health.

The medicinal claims for urine therapy may not have been substantiated by scientific evidence but this lack of credibility has done little to quench the thirst for those who like a drop of the golden stuff. Even British actress Sarah Miles has been widely cited as a celebrity who regularly drinks her own urine.

While practitioners may regard drinking one’s own urine as perfectly acceptable, drinking someone else’s is considered perverted. This is an interesting distinction to draw. In July this year, 56-year-old Alan D. Patton was arrested for criminal mischief after he was discovered collecting and drinking the urine from young boys at a sports stadium in Dublin, Ohio. His ingenious method for harvesting the fluid was to collect it in foam cups strategically placed in toilets that were covered with plastic wrap and the flushing water was shut off.

Patton has a 16-year history of urophilia and specifically drinking the urine from young boys. Despite public protest at his latest escapades, Patton has not committed any crime. There is no law against drinking the urine from young boys.

So why does he do it? There are many reasons that individuals develop fetishes but in the case of Alan D. Patton, there is a good dose of psychological essentialism and vitalistic thinking. In 1993 he was arrested for similar offences and told police that he did it to “become a part of their youth, happiness and strength.” This reminded me of the Rotenberg cannibal Armin Meiwes who ate Bernd Brandes that I discuss in the book. Armin wanted to incorporate another person into his own body.

Patton clearly has a history of sexual deviance but I wonder if his fetish behaviour is just an extreme variation on a continuum of practices where individuals try to absorb the vital essence of another. I think that many aspects of intimacy and sexual activity can be interpreted within this framework. It does not make it acceptable but simply more understandable. It’s still pretty gross.


What say you?


Filed under General Thoughts

SuperSense and the Dalai Lama

My colleagues Paul Bloom and Susan Gelman have an interesting short piece in the current Trends in Cognitive Science journal about how the Tibetan authorities selected the 14th Dalai Lama.

According to eye witness testimony from 1941, the bureaucrats tested a two-year old boy in a remote village by presenting him with personal authentic possessions that belonged to the previous 13th Dalai Lama along with a selection of inauthentic similar or identical looking items. It is reported that when presented with identical rosary beads, walking canes, and quilts, the boy grabbed the authentic one in each case. Moreover, when presented with two drums, one that was rather plain but authentic while the other was much more attractive but inauthentic, the boy chose the plain drum and began playing it with a big smile on his face. As far as the authorities were concerned this proved that, “the boy demonstrated his occult powers, which were capable of revealing the most secret phenomena.” The boy is now the current Dalai Lama.

These tests reveal that the authorities believed that the reincarnated Dalai Lama would have the supernatural power to identify authentic objects selected from among copies. This is the psychological essentialism that I discuss in my book where people believe that authentic objects and memorabilia are contaminated by the essence of the previous owner.

So the supersense forms part of the procedure for selecting world leaders. However some bloggers think that this report does no such thing. Rather they argue that it demonstrates a belief in reincarnation and not psychological essentialism. 

What do you think?


Filed under General Thoughts

Lennon Lyrics Go for a Song

Gail Rennard was a plucky young 16 year-old living in Montreal when she heard that John Lennon and Yoko Ono where staging their famous “bed-in” at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1969 as a peace protest. Gail managed to sneak in and meet the Beatle and he ended up giving her hand-written lyrics to the peace anthem, “Give Peace a Chance.” With a sense of his own provenance, Lennon told her to hold on to them, as they would be worth something one day.

On July 10th 2008, they were sold for $834,000, more than twice the original estimate. Rennard was astounded. What makes this object so valuable? Does it look particularly beautiful? Is the item so valuable because, the song would be lost forever without the lyrics?

Of course, not. The reason is psychological essentialism. John Lennon is worshipped and as he penned the lyrics with his own hand, he created the object and for many it is imbued with his essence. That’s why the TV presenter on the morning chat show dealing with this story was in awe of touching the piece of paper.

By spooky coincidence, we have a study coming out shortly with Susan Gelman and her students where we examined attitudes to such historical items. Remarkably one of the items we asked participants to evaluate was a sheet of handwritten lyrics by the Beatles. Not only did people rate this as valuable and worthy of being displayed in museums, they also wanted to touch the item. It is gratifying when research findings are supported by real world examples.

Do you have any other good examples from the world of memorabilia collecting?


Filed under General Thoughts

The Reluctant Blogger

Welcome to my blog. I am told that hosting a blog will help promote my forthcoming book, “SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable.” At first I was reluctant to do this as blogging struck me as a rather self-indulgent, opinionated activity. Then I realized that’s exactly what it is supposed to be and for someone who is happy to promote himself and the public engagement of science at the drop of a hat, it is a bit churlish to start negging blogs now.

So here it is.

Before I begin I would like to say a big thank you to my publishers, HarperOne and in particular the immensely talented Abby Berendt who has set this up for me (Abby also filmed and edited the groovy video blip that can be found here). Talk about making a purse out of a sow’s ear. The material for the clip was all shot in 20 mins on a flying visit to the HarperOne offices in downtown San Francisco.

Why bother with my blog you might ask? Well apart from family and friends, I am hoping to attract visitors with regular premonitions, messages from the other side as well as revealing the secret for eternal youth.

Unfortunately as a committed skeptic and non-believer in any personal god or gods, I guess those sections will be a bit thin. However, there is other worldly stuff that should keep you coming back for more.

For example, writing a book for the general public is an odd experience and I will keep you posted along the way. Aside from the actual writing there is a whole marketing campaign that has to be geared up before the first copies have even hit the shelves. So, I will keep you up-to-date with the pre-publication activity related to the book. It is a much more complicated and exciting process than I had ever imagined. This should be interesting for those of you considering writing a book.

I suppose the main reason for the blog is to draw your attention to cool research and findings. Not necessarily just stuff related to the theory I propose in “SuperSense” but also other amazing research and findings. You know, the sort of things you just could not make up. I will keep these restricted to water-cooler conversation topics.

Anyway, I am new to this so please be gentle.

Nothing on premonitions or messages from the other side for the moment to report but keep tuning in, I guarantee it will make you look younger.



Filed under General Thoughts