Monthly Archives: June 2009

Would You? Could You?

The Japanese robotics industry continues to make startling advances in creating life-like robots and here is just one recent example.


Gigolo Joe

Gigolo Joe

Is it a coincidence that much of this effort appears directed to creating young female humanoids? I was once told by an internet investor that much of the technological advances in the internet were spurred on by the lucrative pornography business. I wonder if similar motives operate in the world of robotics. Assuming engineers do get there one day, then this raises some interesting questions. Would synthetic sex constitute infidelity? Would robots free individuals from the urges that create so many problems? Or would robot sex lack that essential quality we seek in others? Jude Law’s robotic Gigolo Joe  in Speilberg’s “AI” suggests maybe not. At the moment HRP4C, as she is affectionately known, costs $200,000 but like all technology her price will eventually come down. Maybe so will her value. Would sex with a cheap robot be less satisfying? What do you think?


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Diana’s Big Mistake


Princess Diana's Biggest Mistake?

Princess Diana's Biggest Mistake?

Some may regard her biggest mistake was her marriage to Prince  Charles. Others think it was failing to wear a seat belt. But for one happy memorabilia collector, it is a big rubber (that’s eraser to you sniggering US visitors) that used to belong Princess Diana. Yesterday, an old rubber was auctioned and sold for £540 ($890) to a Swiss collector surpassing previous estimates. This is yet another example of people paying large amounts of money for mundane objects that are elevated to special status by their previous owner. For some reason, the Princess held on to this rubber she first acquired as a teenager. Maybe it was a private joke. 

In contrast, her nemesis, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is not regarded as Royality by many loyal Diana fans. Her memorabilia is unlikely to fetch anywhere near the prices that Diana memorabilia will continue to fetch well into the future. Maybe this is why the toilet seat that Camilla sat on during an impromptu visit to an East Sussex pub only sold for £87 ($100).


Touched by royality? - I think not.

Touched by royality? - I think not.

The landlady of the pub said, “I went to open the latch on the door, then low and behold Camilla was standing there. She smiled, said hello and I thought ‘What do I do? Curtsey or bow? She asked if she could use the toilet and I said ‘Of course you can. The toilet still needs to be decorated, but they are spotlessly clean’. She said ‘It’s fine, don’t worry’.” The landlady  added: “I’ve never sat on a public toilet, but after she left I went in there and said ‘My derriere has been touched by royalty’.”

Fat chance. I bet Camilla did what everybody does when using a public toilet. She carefully laid strips of toilet paper around the rim of the seat so that she could avoid the common touch! I wonder what the People’s Princess, who had the common touch, would have done?


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Skeptics in the Pub-Not What You Might First Think

As I began telling the crowd last night, “Skeptics in the Pub” does not immediately sound like an enticing group of people. I immediately thought of drunken cantankerous middle-aged men arguing about religion over a warm pint of bitter. Why couldn’t I have been invited to speak by the “White Witches in a Wine Bar?” They sound much more fun.

But how wrong was I? What a great bunch of friendly people! There was a little bit of a last minute panic when no projection screen could be found but in the end, Sid the organizer pulled it all together. I met some great people including Jon Ronson and the wonderful Natassia Cafferty who writes a wickedly funny tweet (@timidheathen). I recommend you follow her and I recommend you follow the skeptics in the pub movement.


Filed under book publicity

Another Year Over

Today marks the end of the academic year in Bristol, UK and so I thought I would take stock. This has been an auspicious week. SuperSense got an amazing review in Science, which called it “marvelous” and  ” … an important contribution to the psychological literature that is revealing the actuality of our very irrational human nature.” This was so important to me to get recognition from the mainstream journals and even a “hard sciences” colleague of mine emailed to congratulate me.

Sales are picking up and the book is sold out in many branches of Waterstones, UK. I wish they could get their distribution act together as some have been without books for 3 weeks which is a pain when you put so much effort in for promotion. That said, the book has been sold to eight countries and is being translated into Dutch, Portuguese, Croatian, Spanish and Japanese. It has been out 3 months and so far, signs are looking promising.

 A lot of this is down to the site and you guys. Today we hit 100,000 visits  which is great considering the first post went up July 10th, less than a year ago. About half of this is repeat traffic whereas others stumble here looking for UFOs and blood (the two most common search terms that link to this site). So keep coming and keep commenting – a lot of people are reading your thoughts.

While my teaching and marking may have come to an end, the writing and research continues. Not to mention updating the blog. I am going to a meeting next month which promises to be amazing. So watch this space.

Thanks again.



Filed under General Thoughts

Chinese Ghost Brides


Tim Burton's Take on Chinese Minghun

Tim Burton's Take on Chinese Minghun

A couple of weeks ago I was in London to film a brief interview with a production company making a documentary for Channel Four about a man who exhumes bodies for a living. It was a really awkward interview as the first question posed to me was, “So why is the body important?” As I stumbled through the questions I realized that there are all manner of beliefs about the corpse that vary from culture to culture. I mentioned the Zoroastrian tradition of leaving the corpse on the mountain side to be consumed by the elements. The Mexican “El Día de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) where they celebrate the deceased and even some cultures where the corpse is exhumed for a day of celebration. I even got a mention of the funereal cannibalism that was practiced by the South American Wari tribe up until the 1950’s where deceased relatives were cooked and eaten. In short there is no end to the weird beliefs concerning how we treat the dead but in each instance very few cultures simply treat the body as flesh and bone.

We learn this week that a grieving father in China paid graver-robbers to dig up the body of a teenage girl who recently committed suicide for failing to pass her university entrance exams. He had just lost his son and he wanted a “ghost bride” for him in the afterlife. This practice known as “minghun” reflects a widespread belief that an unmarried life is an incomplete one – even in death. A marriage ceremony is performed and the two corpses are buried together. In China, young girls are often sold for weddings and even death is no bar to selling one’s own daughter. Parents of a dead daughter often regard the money received in selling her for minghun as recompense for the dowry that they did not receive in her lifetime, while also posthumously elevating their child’s place. This practice reminds me of Jesse Bering’s work with pre-school children that I discuss in SuperSense where they reason that although a puppet mouse might be dead inside the belly of an alligator, it still has a mental life because the after-life is such a powerful assumption.

Although minghun has officially been banned it still goes on in rural communities leading to grave-robbing.  One problem is the lack of suitable ghost brides. Last year, a Chinese gang were arrested for murdering young women to supply the need for minghun. Once again, we are reminded that not all beliefs are benign.

“The Exhumer” will be broadcast on Channel Four in July.


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

Catalan Charm

200px-Antoni_Gaudi_1878Things are crazy at the moment with public lectures, examination marking (Bristol & Oxford), book promotion and all the other s**t that I have managed to clog my life up with but I received an invitation last week to fly out to Barcelona to record an interview with Eduardo Punset that I could not resist. I had heard such wonderful things about this city and frankly I needed a break. Also I am a sucker for getting in front of the camera and was really sick of radio and podcast interviews. (I’m a visual guy and if I can’t see the other person, I find it much harder to communicate). So a TV opportunity was welcomed but more for the chance to visit the city of Antoni Gaudi, someone I wanted to know more about.

As it was, I had most of the day to explore Barcelona on Thursday as the shoot was not scheduled until 4pm. So I did the tourist thing and sought out the nearest Antoni PICT0143Gaudi building I could find which happened to be “La Pedrera.” Cor blimey… this guy was seriously possessed. A whole apartment block designed through his vision of a fusion of nature and technology. It really has to be seen to be believed. I thought that nothing could top that until I then headed over to the “Casa Batlló.” At this point my head was spinning. This is frankly the most awe-inspiring piece of architecture I have encountered and I am a sucker for magnificent architectural monstrosities. The thing about Gaudi is that he designed everything! From the impossible structure of the building to the handles on the doors and nothing, and I really mean it, nothing was conventional or too small to be taken for granted. His vision is everywhere. The word genius is all too easily bandied about but seriously Gaudi was clearly from another planet. He was a devout Catholic who was entirely motivated by his beliefs. I am not religious but I am astounded by the creativity and drive that religion can bring out in some people.


Sue the make-up lady who likes to dance

Sue the make-up lady who likes to dance

Anyway, back to the shoot. I was collected by the delightful producer Javier and assistant Stephanie from the hotel and we headed a mile out of Barcelona to a Romanesque church on a hill overlooking the ancient pathway between central Spain and the ocean. For the briefest moment in the back of the car driven by Carlos, I felt like a hostage victim as I had expected a studio shoot. (I am terribly anxious when I don’t speak the language). But the hour’s drive was well worth it. They kept talking about Eduardo Punset and how they wanted our meeting to be spontaneous but I have to confess I did not know who he was. When I arrived at the church I was relieved to discover that it was not a kidnap situation but that there was a crew of about 8 people including the delightful flirtatious make-up artist, Sue. I was beginning to enjoy myself under the hot Catalan sun.



Eduardo & Bruce discuss the meaning of life outside a church

Eduardo & Bruce discuss the meaning of life outside a church

Then Eduardo Punset turned up and it was clear I was in the presence of a pro. He was incredibly charming and immediately put me at ease. I’ll tell you more about the interview when it is broadcast in a couple of weeks time and available for download. I can’t wait to hear myself dubbed in to Spanish! Anyway just to end the blog, we went out for dinner and clearly Eduardo was a national celebrity as the heads turned and tongues wagged in the restaurant. At the end of the evening, a clutch of young women came up to fawn over the elegant gentleman. I had a great time. I was honored that Eduardo liked my book and was interested in my ideas. I also love a country were elderly science communicators are considered celebrities. I think I am going to try and learn Spanish!


Filed under book publicity

It’s Raining Tadpoles!


Tadpoles on car windshield outside Nakajima Civic Center

Tadpoles on car windshield outside Nakajima Civic Center

Maybe God does have a sense of humor. How else can you explain the recent downpour of tadpoles reported in Japan in two separate incidents? Is this the work of hoaxers? I really don’t have an answer. Explanations range from freak water spouts sucking up gallons of water into the clouds to flocks of birds having a coordinated chuck-up but these really do seem just too far-fetched. Here’s one mystery that should keep us on the hop.


Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

Would You Accept the Heart of Killer?

2444291746_272fe079a4Would you willing accept an organ transplant from a murderer? This goes a bit further than wearing the clothing of a killer that I discuss in SuperSense. For many there is a fear of taking on the psychological states and even memories of the donor. As noted in an earlier post, such notions of cellular memories are surprisingly persistent. In 1988, Claire Sylvia a US woman in her forties with primary pulmonary hypertension had a heart and lung transplant to save her life. After the operation she reported a change in her personality that she attributed to taking on aspects of the personality from the donor. Her book, wittily entitled “A Change of Heart,” documented her experiences and was offered as evidence for the pseudoscientific theory of cellular memories, where psychological properties are thought to be encoded in organ tissue and can be transplanted into a new host.

One recent small study of transplant patients reported that one in three thought they had taken on some aspect of personality from the donor. There is also the case in 1999 of the terminally-ill British teenager who was forcibly given a heart transplant against her will because she feared she would lose her own identity with someone else’s heart. Clearly this belief is not a trivial issue.

I spoke with a leading Bristol transplant surgeon about this and he explained that there were many physiological reasons why patients experience a change in personality, not mention the simple fact that they have been given a second lease of life in a situation where it is difficult enough to find donor organs. However, Claire Sylvia didn’t just report a change in personality. She developed an inexplicable taste for beer, chicken nuggets and found herself strangely attracted to short blonde women. You guessed it. The 18-yr-old male who was the donor for her heart and lungs, liked his beer and chicken nuggets and had a short blonde girlfriend.

Some patients believe not only that they take on aspects of the donor’s personality but in some cases they form a psychic bond. This is what Ian and Lynda Gammons reported following the successful transplantation of one of Lynda’s kidneys in a life-saving operation for husband.

When I spoke with one of the coordinators for the National transplant programme that just happens to be based in Bristol, she was fairly dismissive of these reports and concerns. I am not sure whether she misunderstood my line of enquiry and thought that I really did believe in cellular memory or she was being evasive. Anyway, it was clear to me that this could be a sensitive issue.

Despite my fascination with this supernatural belief, I don’t think that it is ethically appropriate to interview transplant patients about whether they have concerns about cellular memories from their implanted organs. There are far more serious issues to consider. 

So we conducted a study of healthy adults just to get a sense of attitudes towards whether people would be concerned about the identity of the donor. We got them to rate 20 faces along a number of dimension including how happy would they be to receive a life-saving heart transplant from that person. This gave us our baseline scores. We then repeated the questions for the same 20 faces mixed among another 20 distractor faces. This time we told them that the potential donor was either a convicted murderer of voluntary worker. 

The study which is currently in press with the Journal of Culture & Cognition reveals that you get overall positive (halo) effects when you learn someone is a good person and overall negative (horns) effects when you discover that they are evil. The effect is strongest for the killer’s heart. A second study replicated the effect and found no difference between a potential heart versus liver transplant. Maybe people just think killers are more likely to have diseased organs. Except that the halo and horns effects are found for all questions that are irrelevant to lifestyle. Rather I would submit that psychological essentialism (the idea that identity and morality) are believed to be encoded in the body is the primary reason that people fear the heart of a killer.


Filed under Essentialism, Research

Bruce Grasps the Big Idea


What is this man doing?

What is this man doing?


So I gave a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival last night and the Times recorded the event for posterity. After the talk I was approached by a persistent young lady who was incredibly persuasive in getting me to hand over my slides so that they could upload the whole lecture to the Times online site. The problem I have with this is that I am reluctant to hand over material that I have taken time to collect and can easily be used out of context. But my goodness she easily got me to hand everything over. But I outwitted her. Because I use the really groovy but somewhat obscure Mac platform “Keynote” for my presentation they had no way of opening the file and indeed none of my brilliant images and movies were copied. Ha Ha… to you young lady-  I left you with an empty file!

But it would appear that the Times has had the last laugh. They have put up an edited version of the talk anyway and  have this image  up on their site of me frozen in a particularly stupid grimace and pose. Now for some fun. What is the invisible thing I appear to be grasping, feeling or massaging? Let your imagination go.


Filed under book publicity, In the News

Susan Boyle Cracks

The modern talent show format is the crack cocaine of instant celebrity status catapulting completely unknown individuals into the full glare of public scrutiny and criticism without the time and experience to deal with rejection that is inevitable in any popularity competition. This is a shocking situation which is unacceptably cruel to the vulnerable. 

Susan Boyle has finally cracked under the pressure. We learn that early this morning she was entered into a private clinic (the Priory) for assessment under the Mental Health Act. Despite what the press and public relations parasites are claiming, this means she has been sectioned. In other words, forcibly admitted for psychiatric treatment.

Is anyone surprised? The producers of these shows are shameful and we the viewing public are egging them on like the braying crowd at the Victorian insane asylums.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News