Monthly Archives: November 2008


During the 19th century, feeling heads became quite a parlour game (next to opium and sniffing nitroustock_0171s oxide). Francis Galton had pioneered the pseudoscience of phrenology whereby personality traits could be determined by the relative size of bumps and protrusions on the head. The idea was that mental faculties were localized in the brain and those faculties that were especially active would produce a protuberance of the skull. Hence feeling for bumps.

I actually have a massive one. It’s called an inion and is located at the back of my skull known as the occipital bone. Do I have really good vision (the corresponding brain region directly below is the primary visual processing area)? Of course not, the logic of phrenonlogy is daft as a brush. I do however, like to hear the squeals when I allow unsuspecting people to feel it. Apparently the bone growth is a genetic legacy of Nordic origin (I always knew there was a bit of Viking in me!).

All this brings me onto neophrenology. I have always been deeply sceptical of the recent fad for brain imaging in cognitive neuroscience because,

1) I seriously doubt that mental functions over and beyond motor and sensory functions are conveniently localized in a brain region

2) investigators tend to find localization where they are looking for it

3) the beautiful brain images published in the papers are a con – the output from these techniques is statistical activation and these are simply overlaid on structural brain scans to make it look as if you can seen the mind at work!

4) it’s a damned expensive technique that has been sucking up huge amounts of research grant money

5) the majority of people doing the research don’t have a clue about cognitive science and why imaging is only a tool.

images As you can see, I am not a great fan of brain imaging of mental functions –  I think  much of it is phrenology.

 So I am pleased to announce that we have just been awarded a grant from the Bial  Foundation to undertake an fMRI study of supernatural thinking at the Cardiff  University Brain Research Imaging Centre. Of course, this is not the first time that people have scanned brains during supernatural thought processes. The public got extremely excited when researchers found a “God spot” in the brain of nuns and people meditating. But really what did they expect to find. We all know thoughts go on in the brain and not your big toe! Anyway our studies are going to address one of the key predictions of SuperSense. Namely intuitive reasoning leads to supernatural beliefs that we try to suppress and this will be particularly obvious in certain individuals. It should show up as a predictable pattern of co-activation in a number of brain regions.

Anyway, I always knew that Galton guy was on to something. Ask me again in a years time when the first analyses should be complete.


Filed under Research

Science Minister Has “Sixth Sense”

How did I miss this one????? 

The Government’s new science minister Lord Drayson claims to have a ‘sixth sense’ to predict the future and cites Malcolm Gladwell’s popular bestseller, “Blink” as a fascinating book that confirms his belief that humans have involved an intuitive supernatural ability.

Ka…thunk! The sound of a million jaws hitting the ground! 

Oh well… guess he will appreciate “SuperSense.” I’ll get my publisher to send him a copy.

Thanks to Andrew Kelly from the Festival of Ideas for pointing this one out to me.

Now that’s two posts on the same day… time to take a break


Filed under In the News, Newspaper

Body & Soul

18soul_500One of the oldest references to the division of the body and soul has been recently discovered in the ancient city of Sam’al near the modern city of Zincirli (pronounced ZIN-jeer-lee) in southeastern Turkey. Archaeologists from the University of Chicago discovered an inscribed 800-pound basalt stone monument called a “stele” that asked mourners to worship the stone as it possessed the soul of Kuttamuwa, a royal official from the eighth century BC.

This belief was a marked departure from contemporary cultures such as the Israelites who believed that the body and soul were inseparable and hence cremation was unacceptable.

“Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased,” said David Schloen, an archaeologist at the university’s Oriental Institute and director of the excavations. “But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone.” (NY Times)

Does this sound familiar SuperSensers? I think it is the same reasoning that leads to the veneration of various material objects that we have been describing in this blog.

Thanks Arno.. remember keep sending me these links, guys.

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Filed under In the News, Newspaper

Ashes to Ashes, Fun to Funky

I have been waiting for a good opportunity to publish a set of related stories about our attitudes towards the cremated as this is such an interesting aspect of human behaviour. Back in August, during “Operation Amen” (I kid you not), Italian police arrested workers at a Tuscan crematorium who had disposed of 10-20 bodies at a time rather than individually to save money leaving grieving relatives to mourn the ashes of strangers.  They were charged with fraud, conspiracy and “offending the piety of the dead.” So everyone was pissed off because all the ashes were mixed but then in what sense are the ashes of the individual?

Konrad described this in an earlier comment and there was a very funny article printed this weekend in “The Guardian” about people who keep the ashes in very peculiar places including the glove compartment of their car. The fact that people revere the last mortal remains of a loved one is not particularly surprising even if they are reduced to carbon. I don’t have problem with that. But in many instances the fact that Granny is beginning to leak from the box or has been shared by several relatives really starts to challenge the way that we think about individuals and a unique collection of matter.

And what about the story of Keith Richards snorting his father’s ashes? I know it was said in jest, but even if it was true, I don’t think it is particularly sacrilegious. Maybe some of us want to absorb and imbibe those that we feel connected too.

Give me your thoughts on this. I would be really interested to know. After all, if you are in your middle age, then most of the cells in your body are 10 years old or less…. In other words, your cells are continually replenishing themselves. There is no material you!

Now isn’t that a comforting notion?


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

Spinning Spinoza

spinozaOliver Sacks sent me his recent editorial review of an imaging study by Sam Harris and colleagues. Harris is more familiar for his attacks on religious fundamentalism in his books, “End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” but has resumed his graduate work in cognitive neuroscience.

The study that appeared in the Annals of Neurology is really interesting. Very briefly they had participants judge statements from seven different categories (autobiographical, mathematical, geographical, religious, ethical, semantic and factual). Each was designed to be “clearly true, false or undecidable.” For example,


(2+6) + 8 = 16

62 can be evenly divided by 9

1.257= 32608.5153



Most people have 10 fingers and 10 toes

Eagles are common pets

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by 1.2% last Tuesday.

What they found was that there were two separable patterns of brain activity for assenting and dissenting statements. Assenting statements preferentially activated the ventromedial prefrontal cortex associated with emotional regions whereas dissent activated the more dorsal regions associated with executive functions. In other words, it is emotionally gratifying to agree with statements whereas dissent involves dissonance.

This reminds me of the confirmation bias that one finds operating in psychology. We tend to preferentially process information that is consistent with our inherent beliefs. Harris and other’s findings are more radical suggesting that we are inclined to acceptance of statements rather dismissal which could be a mechanism for the power of accepting other people’s testimony.

This is an intriguing idea. Certainly early in development children have a strong “Yes” bias in response to questioning. Behaviourally we are more inclined to compliance than dissent.

However, I have a couple of quibbles with the study – they collapsed across all categories for true and false statements but how can you have a clearly true religious statement. The one cited in the paper is “A personal God exists, just as the Bible describes.”  But that is a belief whereas the others are factually verifiable. So just because one gets a neurological marker for judging factually correct statements that triggers for certainty, one cannot say the same applies to beliefs.

Spinoza’s conjecture is that in understanding statements, it is much easier to accept a statement as a truth than it is to reject it as false. I think that is correct but as Francis Bacon pointed, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” So we are not simply gullible blank slates for memes. Still it is a really interesting line of enquiry.



Filed under Research