Monthly Archives: October 2008

Growing A Thick Skin

I am preparing a scientific blog for next week but as there is an article published this week that is relevant, I guess I should post this now.

Sharon Begley of the Newsweek magazine has written an article on “Why We Believe” which refers to SuperSense and some of the stuff that appears on this site. The comments on the article by readers are not only numerous but seem particularly nasty and vitriolic.

Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, the article has also just been posted on the Richard Dawkins discussion site where there is a totally different set of comments.

I guess what I am saying is that when SuperSense comes out, I think I may pull off that rare feat of antagonizing both sides, believers and rationalists. On the one side, by arguing for a natural origin of belief and on the other, by claiming that reason cannot readily change beliefs.

Oh well, roll on next Spring. I hope I can grow a thick enough skin in time. 


Filed under book publicity

Spooky Evening

Feeling a little bit rough this morning after last night! Thank you to all of you who turned up (300+?)and apologies to those of you that did not get in. I would like to think that it was me that you came see but I know that it was the topic. Anyway, back to Earth and scientific blogging. Should have something for you to ponder in a day or two. Cheers


halloween1Dr. Anne Cooke did such a wonderful job on the design for my public talk that I wanted to post it just in case any of you are in Bristol next week. Check here for other great Bristol Neuroscience activities.


Filed under book publicity, supernatural

Losing Control Enhances Your SuperSense

It is really difficult these days to get psychology studies published in journals such as “Nature” and “Science.” They tend to be dominated by more material sciences unless of course, you can show a picture of a brain operating whilst someone is thinking. (I am always amazed that people find such images so convincing – I mean we all know thinking takes place in the brain and not your big toe!). Anyway, it is always worth plugging papers in the field of psychology when they appear in such prestigious journals.

This month I was particularly delighted to see a paper in “Science” by  Whitson & Galinsky who demonstrated manipulation of the SuperSense by getting people to remember times when they lacked control.

Very simply, participants had to recall events in their lives when they felt a loss of control. After recalling such an episode, adults were tested on all manner of stimuli where there were ambiguous events (see below).


Do you see a picture in any of these?????

Whitson & Galinsky found adults who experienced a loss of control see more illusory patterns, develop more superstitions, perceive more conspiracies and form illusory correlations in the stock market. Their SuperSense had been stimulated! 

The authors argue that loss of control leads us to become hypersensitive to possible patterns. That’s one of the reasons that stress leads to an increase in supernatural thinking. In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization. No wonder those stock market traders are clutching their rabbit’s feet.


Filed under Research

Skeletons in the Closet

The house at 104 The Mount, York in England is proving difficult to sell. I have been keeping an eye on this property since I read about it back in May earlier this year. I even sent off for the property details. Anyway I just got off the phone with Savills, the estate agents to see if there had been any progress in its sale. Not surprisingly, it is still on the market.

It may be the credit crunch but I think it could also be the presence of a Roman burial chamber adjoining the cellar in the basement complete with its own skeleton. Tanya, the estate agent tells me that the skeleton is visible by torchlight!

This building is Grade II listed by English Heritage, which means that any prospective owner has to put up with the presence of the burial chamber. It is unlikely that they will be granted permission to remove the remains but it would be perfectly acceptable to seal off the view into the burial chamber. Still knowing the skeleton was sealed up in your cellar would be too chilling for most.

Stigmatized houses are properties that are difficult to sell because of some tragedy such as a murder or a suicide. In the worst cases, properties are demolished such as happened with Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment in Milwaukee or the house where the two little girls were murdered in Soham, England. This is an interesting issue that I discuss at length in “SuperSense” as I think that the history of a house is a very powerful trigger for supernatural beliefs.

But how far back in the history of a home do you have to go before it is ok to bury the past? Most old houses will have probably had a death occur within. However, few still have the bodies buried inside.

Could you live in such a house knowing that there was a skeleton in the basement? It reminds me all too much of “The Evil Dead,” and if you have seen Sam Raimi’s debut horror masterpiece or any of the sequels, then you’ll understand why anyone would have reservations.

So tell me SuperSensers. Do you think you could make a cozy home sharing with the mortal remains of another down in the basement? And if not, why?

I would like to know a) your initial reaction and b) your carefully reasoned responses after a moment’s reflection.  


Filed under Newspaper, supernatural, Weird Story of the Week

Ice Queen

Just about every song I can think about that deals with isolation and rejection has lyrics that describe how cold that feeling is. Cue 1970’s megaband Foreigner….”You’re as cold as ice. You’re willing to sacrifice our love….” 

Yeah I hate that song as well. But the metaphor of rejection and temperature crops up again and again in culture. Cold shoulder, icy stare, frosty reception etc.. etc..

Now Cheng-Bo Zeng and colleagues have demonstrated experimentally in a forthcoming publication in Psychological Science that individuals who are asked to recall previous episodes when they were socially rejected, judge the room temperature to be on average 6 degrees colder than individuals asked to remember some socially inclusive event.

Then they induced social exclusion in a virtual interactive game on a computer and found that participants reported a greater desirability for warm food and drinks.

This area of research is know as embodied cognition where thought processes have tangible and predictable consequences on bodily responses and perception. In this case, being rejected is a cold experience.

Cool eh?


Filed under Research