Monthly Archives: March 2009

Icelandic Elf School

I love Bjork but she is a bit nuts. Maybe it’s not her fault but her Icelandic upbring. About 10 percent of Icelanders believe in the existence of a “huldufólk” or a hidden world of elves, dwarfs and spirits with magic powers.  Another 10 percent deny them, but the remaining 80 percent on the North Atlantic island nation either have no opinion or refuse to rule out their existence, a survey shows. They even have a school in Reykjavik that teaches Elf studies.

Whereas town planners are concerned about building on ancient historical site, Icelandic planners have similar consideration for suspected homes of gnomes and fairies.Couples who are planning a new house will sometimes hire “elf-spotters” to make sure the lot is free of spirit folk. 

Jon Jonsson, a folklorist who used to teach at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, admits he’s never seen elves himself, but has a grandmother who saw them personally and reported they actually look like normal people who live in hills and cliffs. That’ll be true then. My granny used to drool on about the weird folk in the village.

250px-elf_housesAnyway, here is photographic evidence of elf houses near Strandakirkja in south Iceland. Either this is the work of some demented doll’s house builder or the picture has been taken from very far away.

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Watch With Mother

girltvWith names like “Baby Einstein,” “Baby Bach,” and “Baby Newton” is it any wonder that new parents and especially new grandparents are going to be tempted to buy into this fad for “hot-housing” babies with DVDs designed to enhance brain development? Simply plonk infant down in front of TV, insert stimulating DVD and watch as brain grows. Simple.

Last year, developmental psychologist Andy Meltzoff got into trouble with the Disney Company who own the Baby Einstein range for publishing a study that showed that rather than enhancing infants’ brains, these DVD’s actually impaired language development. Disney threatened to sue the University of Washington for publishing the press release of the study though I doubt they could have found a better expert opinion than Meltzoff’s to refute his findings. 

However a study by a team from Harvard Medical School, published this month in “Pediatrics,” did not find that increased TV viewing in infants under  two years related to poorer cognitive development when all the socio-economic factors were considered. But there was no benefit either. Maybe they needed to be watching “Baby Einstein.”

I often get asked about the role of early environment on brain development as so many parents are concerned when they read about the effects of deprivation that come mainly from the animal research. Yes the early environment is important but the deprivation has to be pretty extreme to cause permanent problems. Moreover, giving extra stimulation is not going to create super-smart babies.

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Where’s the Honey, Mummy?

monk_mummy_3While we are still on the mummy theme, I saw on the PT site that a few Buddhist temples in northern Japan house a number of “living mummies.” In an attempt to achieve Nirvana, these monks had to undergo a gruesome three-step process:

1) Eat a diet of nuts and seeds, exercising vigorously for 1,000 days to rid the body of fat.

2) Eat only bark and roots for the next 1,000 days while sipping on poisonous tea made from the sap of the urushi tree. 

3) Finally retreat to an underground tomb and meditate until dead. Leave for 1,000 days and voila, if the corpse is still well preserved, then they are deemed to be a living mummy.

This reminded me of the medieval delicacy of mellified man described by Mary Roach in her gloriously hilarious book, “Stiff.” Mellified man was a delicate sweet used for medicinal purposes and was allegedly prepared in the following way according to the Chinese Materia Medica (1597),

“… In Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month, he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put on the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years, the seals removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken bones and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint”

Such an account seems entirely fanciful but there was a roaring trade in the apocatheries of Europe for elixir made from North African mummies. Mummy elixir was so popular that it created a black market trade with grave robbing and faked mummies, a situation that has not changed today. Today, the practice is more motivated by selling corpses to gullible collectors rather than those seeking a quick human nibble. Needless to say, this all smacks of human essentialist reasoning where eating human flesh is believed to bestow some magical power.

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Japanese Mummified Monsters

0341Just in case you haven’t had the time to pop over to the fabulous Pink Tentacle site to check out there lastest blog, here is a blatant rip-off of their last post. In temples and museums across Japan there are collections of mummified monsters – demons, mermaids etc. Some of them are remarkably convincing such as the three-faced demon head at the Zengyōji temple.

monster_mummy_6Many of these mummies have interesting histories and I would refer you to the Pink Tentacle site for more exotic examples and information. I particularly like the mermaid mummies. Now how they lured sailors to their deaths with their sexual allure escapes me. There again, I suppose most sirens look a little unappealing after mummification.

I don’t know how these monster mummies where created and I wonder if any are genetic malformations but they are fantastic visions of the supernatural. No wonder Japanese horror movies are so creepy. What’s your favourite?

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Vampire Discovered in Mass Grave

mg20126985200-2_300Although we are more familiar with the “stake through the heart” method for disposing of vampires, it would appear that the medieval Venetians preferred a brick in the mouth technique. Excavations of the 1576 Venice plague pits revealed a skeleton of a woman with a small brick lodged in her mouth. At the time the woman died, many people believed that the plague was spread by “vampires” which, rather than drinking people’s blood, spread disease by chewing on their shrouds after dying. Grave-diggers put bricks in the mouths of suspected vampires to stop them doing this.

Dr. Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence reported his findings last week at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Denver, claiming the first forensic evidence of vampires. However, this claim has been challenged by Prof. Moore-Jansen who has reported similar cases in the graves of Poland. Last month it was Zombie outbreaks, but now we have vampires popping up all over the place

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Raising Our Dead Son

With such a plethora of supersense related stories to report this week I thought I would investigate this one. Consider this. If you and I are a couple and we decide to make a doll from the hair on our heads, that said doll would be half mine and half yours and nobody else’s – yes? Now imagine that the said doll disappears but that you and I discover the whereabouts of its location some several years later. Who does it belong to? You and I – yes? So would it be wrong for the authorities to destroy the doll? It seems an obvious yes.

Now replace hair with DNA and try the logic again. While going through his personal records, the parents of Mark Speranza discovered that their dead son deposited his semen in a tissue bank in New York six months before he died of cancer  more than 10 years ago. His parents sought to reclaim their son’s sperm in order to impregnate a surrogate mother but had their claim refused in a court of law this week. They argued that as they had paid the yearly maintenance fee for the sample, they were entitled to it. However, the court ruled that handing over the sample would violate the rule that all sperm must be screened  before impregnation.

Somehow I think this is just a health technicality. We all know that the real reason is not concern about giving birth to a damaged baby but rather the ethical validity of parents raising their children from the dead, or at least their belief they can. What do you think?

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What’s The Meaning of Life?

monty-pythons-the-meaning-of-lifeOne of the striking features of the human mind is that we seek reason and purpose for all manner of phenomena. This tendency to see purpose in the world is known as teleological reasoning…. In other words, “What’s it for?”

The trouble is that when we apply such reasoning to the natural world then we fall into the trap of regarding everything as being designed and hence we are susceptible to creationism.

That’s the theory of my friend Deb Kelemen at Boston University. She has just published a paper in “Cognition” where she reports a study where adults had to rate the following sorts of statements as true or false.

• Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil

• Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells

• The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesise

• Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align

When they were put under rapid time constraints, adults were significantly more inclined to adopt the teleological stance. When they had ample time, they were still more inclined to endorse teleological interpretations, especially those related to the design of the Earth. It did not matter whether they were believers or not.

She also found with colleagues Tania Lombrozo and Deborah Zaitchik similar patterns of intuitive biases in aging populations with Alzheimer’s Disease. I also wonder whether this is related to Dan Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ where humans deliberately anthropomorphize inanimate things simply because it makes it easier for us to interact with the toaster, the car or the computer if we treat them as if they were alive. Maybe, I’ll ask him next week. (Blatant name-drop).

Anyway, these natural ways of interpreting the world suggests that such ways of thinking never really go away but rather, are suppressed. Arguably, such a bias in our reasoning makes creationism that more easy to accept rather than natural selection which is so counter-intuitive to most people.

Provocatively, my colleague Paul Blooms wonders, “It might turn out that if you put Richard Dawkins or Einstein or whomever [to the test], no matter how expert or educated they are, they might still make these mistakes.”

Now that’s a study I would like to see.

Ok… clearly a more academic post coz I have some meetings coming up where I have to be clever but I will get back to describing the underbelly of mankind shortly.

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Why Did I…..?

Why did I make the next 2 months a nightmare for myself? Take on so much work and commitments and just about everything. This is task overload. My executive functions controlled by brain structures towards the front of my head are going to be overwhelmed over this period and I will have severe difficulty with my reasoning and behavior. This video of performance artist Fuyuki Yamakawa pretty much sums up how I feel at the moment.

FYI he has a bone conduction mike and an electric artificial larynx  – thanx Pink Tentacle

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Galileo Gives Church the Finger

galileo1_11In ‘SuperSense’ I discuss the odd attitude that we have towards revering the remains of the dead. I think that relics are a manifestation of such essentialist beliefs. Usually, relics are bones from saints, but ironically, the same veneration has been applied to the middle finger of one of the earliest martyrs of science, Galileo Galilei.  

As most of you know, Galileo famously fell out with the Catholic Church after defending Copernicus’s discovery that the earth moved round the sun and was charged with heresy. He was ordered to be imprisoned, a sentence that was commuted to house arrest where he spent his final 9 years. 

Recently, British and Italian scientists have applied to the Catholic Church to exhume the remains of Galileo to determine whether he suffered from degenerative visual impairment.

Currently, Galileo’s middle digit is on display in the History of Science Museum in Florence. It is mounted on a marble base inside a glass egg and is said to be pointing towards Rome.  One might think he has had the last laugh.

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Essential Love

web031The desire to share an intimacy with lovers, even after they are gone has a long history. During the Victorian era, it was fashionable to have the hair of the deceased made into mourning jewelry. Today, you can have the cremated remains of the deceased made into a diamond. From as little as £2,500, LifeGem will create a diamond in white, blue, red, green or yellow. And for those of the animal persuasion, they offer a similar service for pets.

imgname-biojewelry_rings_made_from_wisdom_teeth-50226711-bioblingOn the other hand you don’t have to wait for your beloved to be dead. Just take them along to Guy’s Hospital London where the good dentists will extract their wisdom teeth and then grow them up in a bone medium large enough to create a disc from which jewelers can fashion engagement rings with inscription “Forever, and for always.”  Clearly the desire to have your partner wrapped around your finger extends well into essentialism.

Which reminds me. What ever happened to that vial of Billy Bob Thorton’s blood that Angelina Jolie used to wear round her neck? Did she bury it, drink it or flush it down the toilet?

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