Monthly Archives: September 2008

Swiss Milk

A Swiss restaurant owner has announced this month that he intends to serve a menu of dishes cooked with human breast milk. Mr Locher has been posting ads looking for lactating woman to provide the raw ingredient at about £3($6) for 14 fluid ounces.

He first began experimenting with it when his daughter was born and claims, “One can cook really delicious things with it. However, it always needs to be mixed with a bit of whipped cream, in order to keep the consistency.”


weekendI wonder how many customers this menu will attract. Although most of us have been breast-fed as infants, the prospect of consuming someone else’s breast milk does make most of us feel a little queasy. Why? What is about consuming someone else’s human milk that some of us find repugnant? Why are we so happy to consume cow or goat milk? And what is so wrong with Kate Garraway suckling a calf in the recent Guardian article to highlight our peculiar attitudes towards breast-feeding?

 You may remember a few years back that TV chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooked up a mother’s placenta on an episode of Channel 4’s “TV Dinners.” Rosie Clear had just given birth and wanted to celebrate this with friends and family with a special dinner. Hugh obligingly flambéed the placenta with red wine and shallots to make a pâté, served on foccacia beard. As I described in the book, apparently Rosie’s husband woofed down 17 helpings while other dinner guests were more reluctant. Half the viewing nation rushed to their telephones to complain whereas the other half rushed to their toilets. Channel 4 was severely reprimanded by the British Broadcasting Standards Commission for bad taste and Hugh was left confused by the public reaction. What’s so wrong?

I think the placenta thing is more gross and for someone not keen on red, bloody meat in the first place, I know which I would swallow if forced to choose.

Still it is an interesting dilemma. As always, I think culture plays a role by shaping our disgust response which I would argue builds upon essentialist notions. We don’t hold these notions for cows and goats but humans are another matter. That’s why the Swiss authorities are still baffled by the apparent loophole in the law that allows Mr Locher to serve human milk. No one thought that it would ever be an issue. Maybe they should start considering other bodily parts. Finger nibbles anyone?


Filed under In the News, Newspaper, Weird Story of the Week

Genes for Superstition????

I was delighted to see that “SuperSense” got a plug in today’s “Independent.” Dr Kevin Foster and Dr Hanna Kokko have published a paper on the evolution of superstitious behavior in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society. By applying cost benefit mathematical modeling they have been able to show how superstitious behavior could evolve as an adaptation. In other words there could be genes that build brains that lead to superstition.

Specifically, they have argued that superstitions arise from a common error of reasoning where humans make wrong assumptions about cause and effect. Very often when two events happen close in time, the natural tendency is to assume that they are causally related. For example, imagine that you have a surprisingly good day on the tennis court or at the poker table. How do you explain it? What did you do differently from the day before? Maybe it was the mismatching socks you wore? So you repeat the odd socks routine and very soon you have developed your own personal superstition.

Foster and Kokko argue that just like altruism (something that has also been similarly modeled and talked about in Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene”) so long as the mismatching mechanism in the brain occasionally gets it right then this can outweigh all the times superstitions get it wrong. And they have proven this mathematically. “The results are clear,” Foster says. “Being superstitious makes sense in an uncertain world.”

I have no problem with this.  However, such research has a very narrow definition of what superstition is and moreover, does not explain why certain superstitions exist. Rather their analysis focuses on whether such behaviors could be adaptive. 

Genes for superstition? I can hear Richard Dawkins stamping his feet now!

Thanks Sanjida for sending me this.



Filed under book publicity, In the News, Newspaper, Research

Cellular Memories and Bad Blood

I am taking part in a radio interview for BBC Southern Counties Radio’s Brighton breakfast show hosted by Gordon Astley on Sept 10th at around 10am (assuming the world does not come to an end when they switch on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland).

They want a scientific opinion on the reports from transplant patients who think that they have taken on personality characteristics from the donor following the operation. On the show will be Ian and Lynda Gammons who I interviewed for my book. In 2005, Ian had kidney failure and by chance, his wife, Lynda was found to be a compatible match for organ transplantation. About 6 months after the operation, Ian started to notice a change in his attitudes towards shopping, cooking and working in the garden. All the activities his wife enjoyed but that he could not abide. However, one day during a shopping trip with Lynda he suddenly exclaimed that he was really enjoying himself. Since then Ian has taken up his wife’s interests with enthusiasm. He reports that they have a telepathic connection and even share dreams.

Around 1 in 3 transplant patients believe that they have taken on characteristics of the organ’s donor or at least think that they have changed personality in some significant way. Interestingly, such reports are more common among those that have received an organ from a deceased rather than living donor such as in the case of the Gammons.

The first widely publicized report of such organ memory was the former dancer Claire Sylvia who received the heart and lungs from a young man. Following the transplant she developed a taste for beer, chicken nuggets and an attraction to short blond women. The donor’s girlfriend had been short and blond. He liked beer and chicken McNuggets were found in his coat pocket at the scene of the fatal road traffic accident.

How are we to understand such common reports? One pseudoscience theory is that of cellular memory whereby tissue and organs store information about the individual that can then integrate with the host if transplanted. However, psychological states such preferences and memories are encoded in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus and these brain areas cannot be transplanted. Nor is there any reputable evidence for storage of mental states outside of brain tissue. Organs are indeed connected to the brain via nerves but it is a totally different type of nerve system to that of the cortical neuronal networks of the brain that generate the mind.

Rather, I think that a more likely explanation is the longstanding supersense belief that others have an essence of identity that can be incorporated by contact. Certainly this is what Swedish researcher Margareta Sanner has found in her interviews with patients and the general public. Not only do we believe we can absorb the vitality of others by intimate connection, we also believe we can absorb some by their memories and personality. And what could be more intimate that sharing a physical connection with another through the incorporation of part of their body into our own.

This is why one of the greatest concerns for potential organ recipients is the loss of one’s own identity. In 1999, a 16-year-old girl dying from heart failure was forcibly given a heart transplant because she had refused the life-saving operation. She was so concerned that she would lose her identity with some else’s heart insider her, that she preferred certain death.

It does not have to be an organ. My grad student Arno just translated this article from a Dutch paper that reports a recent situation where a Serb was holidaying in Croatia and learned that the country was suffering from a severe lack of blood donated for operation. Having donated blood for years the man turned up at the hospital and offered to make a donation. This was gratefully accepted until they discovered that he was a Serb. When asked why he was turned away, the hospital explained that patients would not accept a transfusion of Serbian blood. It was bad blood.

This reminds me of a number of recent scandals in the US and UK where families where not happy about their loved one’s organs going to recipients from a different race. When a Newcastle Hospital accepted an organ donation on the condition it went only to a white recipient, UK legislation was enacted in 2000 to stop families dictating who should receive donations.

It is not only the recipients of organs who believe that they take on the personality of the donor, so do the relatives who think that the deceased lives on in a new body! No wonder the UK transplant coordination centre is not keen to discuss this problem as such beliefs could hamper their program to recruit more donors.

I am not sure how I would react to someone else’s organs inside me. On an intellectual level I know that organs are just component parts that serve a function but to be honest, I think I too would have to fight hard not to believe that I had part of someone else living on inside of me. It’s only natural.  


Filed under Essentialism, Radio, supernatural

Talking GaGa

I just got back from a trip to Paris, visiting the various sites in search of inspiration. There is so much good material in a city steeped in history, culture, religion and gargoyles.

It was in Notre Dame Cathedral where I was intrigued by a drop-in confessional in practice. Behind the glass wall, was some unknown believer opening their heart to the resident priest. I could not resist an illicit photograph. Apparently they were talking to Father GaGa! Ok a cheap jibe at a Catholic ritual but you must admit, it is pretty funny.

Confession is supposedly good for the soul. But if you don’t have a soul then it is good for the mind. Guilt can be a corrosive mental state and so I expect that much of the benefit of confession must be the relief of “getting it off one’s chest.”

 This is because intrusive thoughts can be surprisingly difficult to avoid and in attempting to do so can use up so much mental effort and resources. The more one tries to ignore or forget a thought the harder it becomes. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner describes this in his white bear studies. In these experiments participants were asked to ignore the image of a great white bear. The trouble is that once you have been told not to think about something, there is a paradoxical increase in the strength of the idea such that it soon becomes an overwhelming obsessive thought. These automatic thoughts are the sorts of ideas that seem to have a life of their own.

If you are immature, brain-damaged or have an anxious personality then you are likely to suffer from intrusive thoughts. The character of Basil Fawlty was arguably deficient on all three counts and hence his hilarious “don’t mention the war” sketch. If you have not seen this, then prepare to wet your pants as you watch this (and major apologies to all my German friends).

But back to guilt and confession. A cynic might argue that religion first makes us suffer from guilt and then provides the antidote through ritual. Where do the rest of us non-believers confess or do we need to?


Filed under Research