Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Mourning After

100_0108Last night I gave a lecture on the origins of supernatural beliefs in John the Baptist church in Bristol. The medieval church was decommissioned 25 years ago but for the first time since then, it had a full congregation who came to hear a scientist explain the brain basis for why we believe that unbelievable. I even threw in a bit of magic and fantasy to spice things up.

100_0100The church is still sanctified or holy if you like, which makes the content of my lecture with references to murder, sex with virgins, organ transplantation and cannibalism, holy inappropriate to those who consider these topics taboo within the context of a church. I even gave my sermon from the pulpit which was a very strange experience. There is something very empowering about being perched above a congregation and with them looking up to you. Still there was no devine retribution (so far) but I must admit, the evening did not go without some stress.

You want it dedicated to who?After the talk, we had a wine reception and book signing in the amazing crypt below complete with craved pumpkins and skulls. There are still tombs down there and I would imagine that if they could, the inhabitants would be turning at high speed. The book signing went well until the elderly lady from the bookseller took a very nasty tumble off a step onto the stone floor and a bunch of dodgy gate-crashers came in and started helping themselves to the wine. Anyway, the lady was alright and I booted the gate-crashers out. I bet Richard Dawkins doesn’t have to manage his own events! Speaking of which, I am introducing him next week when he comes to promote his new book. I did not have any protestors but I would imagine there might be some at the Dawkin’s event.


Note the "BMH" teeth

Thinking of our bookseller lady, maybe it’s not the speakers who attract the devine retribution but those around them who help out at the event. In which case I had better watch my own step at the Richard Dawkins talk. Check back next week when I update the blog with that event…. assuming I am still around to post one.


UPDATE: I just discovered that the church was broken into after my talk and the collection money stolen. Hmm…


Filed under book publicity

What Ever Happened to Little Albert?

Probably the most famous infant subject (apart from the baby Jesus) has finally been tracked down according to an article in the latest edition of American Psychologist. In what must be one of the most notorious psychological studies ever conducted, American behaviourist psychologist John B. Watson and his assistant Rosalie Raynor presented a nine-month-old baby, ‘Little Albert,’ with a white lab rat. At first fear_not_01the baby showed no fear, but then Watson sneaked up behind the infant and startled him with a loud bang by striking a hammer on a metal bar. Naturally, this startled Little Albert, and he cried. Every time Watson and Raynor presented the rat, they clanged the hammer to frighten the poor child. Very soon, the sight of the rat alone was enough to reduce Little Albert to a shaking bundle of nerves. He had learned to fear the sight of a rat. Little Albert soon became fearful of a number of similar objects that Watson and Raynor presented to him. Not too surprising considering that, whenever these two adults appeared, they seemed hell-bent on making his life a misery. Rabbits, dogs, a sealskin coat, and even a Santa Claus mask soon became sources of sheer terror for the poor child. Only by crawling away could Little Albert get some comfort and relief. He had become phobic to objects that had not previously upset him. Why did Watson and Raynor inflict such cruelty? – to prove that phobias could be acquired by associative learning.

What ever happened to Little Albert? Psychologist Hall Beck set out to track down the whereabouts of the unfortunate infant. Soon after the experiments, Little Albert and his mother moved away from John Hopkins and disappeared. By tracking down financial records Beck found out that he was most likely to be the illegitimate son of the campus nurse, Arvilla Merritte, who had a boy called, Douglas. Beck managed to trace the family and obtain photographs of the infant boy. Although blurry, FBI forensics made a positive match between Douglas and the photographs of Little Albert taken at John Hopkins.

However, the end of the story is somewhat tragic as Douglas died aged 6 years of age after developing hydrocephalus. In finishing the article Beck ends with a moving personal testimony,

None of the folktales we encountered during our inquiry had a factual basis. There is no evidence that the baby’s mother was “outraged” at her son’s treatment or that Douglas’s phobia proved resistant to extinction. Douglas was never deconditioned, and he was not adopted by a family north of Baltimore.

Nor was he ever an old man. Our search of seven years was longer than the little boy’s life. I laid flowers on the grave of my longtime “companion,” turned, and simultaneously felt a great peace and profound loneliness.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

Church Service

St John the Baptist Church in Bristol

St John the Baptist Church in Bristol

Next Friday I am giving a Halloween lecture in St John the Baptist’s church in Bristol. It is a fantastic venue. In the 12th century there were five churches built into Bristol’s city walls, acting both as part of the city’s defences, and as places for travellers to offer prayers before a journey. St John’s is the only one that remains. The present church dates from the 14th century and the interior still feels medieval. Walter Frampton (died 1388), who was mayor of the city three times, founded the church, and his splendid monument stands in the chancel. His effigy lies on a tombchest decorated with heraldic shields, with a long-tailed dog at his feet.

So, a lecture about supernatural beliefs, Halloween and religion delivered by an AAA (apathetic atheist/agnostic-depending on how you define your god that you want me to reject) in a church, followed by a wine reception in the crypt below. Have I gone too far?

The church is decommissioned but still sanctified. Falling church attendances mean that many churches up an down the country face similar futures. Of course, the irony is that Halloween was once a pagan festival to rid the village of malevolent spirits. Possibly a religion if you wish to call it that. Certainly it was a ceremonial ritual to address the belief in supernatural entities. Down the track from where I live in the countryside, is a 5,000 year-old burial mound of another defunct religion-  this time maintained by the National Trust. It would seem that all religions are doomed but leave behind legacies.

I happen to like many religious monuments and buildings. They are a testament to the strength of conviction and inspiration that religious beliefs can generate. I may be a non-believer but I will be donating my speaker’s fee to the fund to support the upkeep of St John’s.


Filed under book publicity

Remember the Alamo! Ozzy Does.

The Alamo (or what's left of it)

The Alamo (or what's left of it)

The Cognitive Development Society conference in San Antonio, Texas has just ended and I am sitting here in Atlanta, waiting for a connecting flight to Newark and then to Bristol, UK. This long journey home began this morning with a 7am flight. It will take me 24hrs to reach jolly olde England but I guess that this is nothing compared to journeys before the modern era.

Whilst here, I checked out The Alamo and was surprised to discover that of the 189 men who died defending the fort in the struggle for Texan independence from Mexico, the majority were not from Texas. In fact, 29 were Europeans with a mixture of English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, German and even Danish. Imagine traveling all that distance to end up in a massacre.

Davy Crockett's Flintlock

Davy Crockett's Flintlock

Decades later another Englishman was less welcome in San Antonio. The Alamo is considered sacred and the Shrine of Texas Liberty. All hats must be removed on entering the hallowed remains. No photographs are allowed inside. And like religious shrines, it has its relics including Davy Crockett’s gun and personal belongings on display in glass cabinets. (ok so I violated the strict rules with this iPhone shot). So it is no surprise that the authorities did not take too kindly to a drunken Ozzy Osbourne, dressed in his wife’s clothes urinating on the Alamo back in 1982 during a binge in San Antonio. (By taking away his clothes, Sharon thought he would have no way of getting out of the hotel).

The Texans were so outraged by this desecretion that Ozzy was banned from San Antonio for 10 years until he finally apologized and apparently made a $10K donation to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas who maintain the upkeep of the Alamo. I looked into this amusing story and found reports that he had not in fact desecreted the Alamo but rather the cenotaph outside the fort erected much later. Still, sacred is sacred and you don’t want to piss off Texans – they like to carry guns and consult the bible when deciding the fate of criminals.


Filed under General Thoughts

Fascinating Interview

I am off to Texas next week to attend the Cognitive Development Society meeting in San Antonio- ye hah!

Prisoner 3165

Prisoner 3165

I will not be posting but I will be checking in periodically to read your comments. In case you get lonesome for me, here is the interview that I did at Googleplex during the SciFoo Meeting in July at Mountain View, California. Check out the jazzy piano at the beginning by the talented neuroscientist turned-musician, Vijay Iye (actually he was doing his own thing). I love the ethereal choir as well.


Filed under General Thoughts, Research

Sam Harris Discusses SuperSense

The very talented and smart Dr. Sam Harris (I am not sure whether he has finished his doctorate so I apologise if I have not given him the correct title) has just published a neuroimaging study of believers and non-believers in the online journal, Public Library of Science (PLoS) where he reports on the brain activation when evaluating the truth of religious (“Jesus Christ really performed the miracles attributed to him in the Bible”) and non-religious propositions (“Alexander the Great was a very famous military leader”). They found differential activation in the brains of believers and non-believers. Thank goodness for that or we would all be screwed! For a full exposition on that remark, see my discussion of mind body dualism in my book SuperSense.

Brain imaging is an immensely seductive technique as it resonates (ha –ha  neuroscience joke) with how we intuitively think the brain works. We like pictures of the internal workings of the brain. I should point out that Harris and colleagues are comparative experts in this fields as I am a virgin imager but about to pop my neuroimaging cherry later in Nov when we embark on a project of neuroimaging believers and non-believers as well. I too am looking for differential activation but one that is counter-intuitive to what one would expect. That’s where I think the technique can be valuable so stay posted. A recent review of the whole methodology of neuroimaging of social functions was highly critical claiming that most studies were subject to experimenter bias. Let’s hope our study avoids this pitfall and produces publishable results though the initial seduction for publishing neuroimaging research seems to have worn off in the scientific community in recent years.

You used to be able to get any imaging study published in the top science journals Nature and Science in the 1990’s but that’s all changed now – every department seems to have scanner now desperately seeking funding to operate. So where does one publish? The Public Library of Science of PLoS is a fast track journal but you have to pay to have your studies published there. There is something that sticks in my throat about that. It smacks of correspondence degrees but I guess all journals have costs and may that will be the way of the future. More importantly it has free public access which is great.

If you did not know, Sam Harris is the best-selling author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” and has some of the best put-downs I have ever heard when confronted about his out-spoken views in public. He has now returned his attention to his science and I expect that he is enjoying a welcomed relief to the vitriol that must have come his way. So I was delighted to see his recent papers. I blogged his intriguing finding about cognitive dissonance earlier and he seems to gathering empirical evidence to support his theory that belief is primarily transmitted by others.

However, Harris and colleagues’s discussion of my hypothesis (never a theory till proven) in the current paper that beliefs are a combination of intuitive reasoning embedded in culture is somewhat misrepresented and to say that Justin Barrett and I are coming from the same position is simply not true – Barrett interprets cognitive biases as intelligent design! I was pleased that Harris and colleagues acknowledge the supersense hypothesis but a bit dismayed when they dismissed it with the straw man statement, “Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of religion, it seems unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the why the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in the God of Abraham while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do.”

Well dah. Come on Sam, I am not like the others. You didn’t read the book-did you? I made it perfectly clear that just as any child is innately endowed to acquire a language, there is no genetic basis for French. What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture. Some of us are different – why? I think this new empirical approach to looking at the brain basis of belief is going to be an interesting research agenda as it has implications about individual differences. I hope Harris and colleagues continue this work.

I am more on your side than you realize. So relax. Enjoy life. There probably is no God.


Filed under Research

Shaking Hands With Jonathan Ross

jonathan-ross“Yes it’s him. Be cool. Relax. Don’t stare. He is just another human being. But it’s him … Jonathan Bloody Ross!”I became a real fan of Britain’s top TV interviewer and radio host when he took over from Barry Norman’s film review show. I thought no one could replace Barry but ‘Wossy’ surpassed the great Barry – or maybe not (inside Barry joke!).

So here I was in the green room at The Amazing Meeting event in London this weekend mixing with the speakers. Tracy King, the organizer had invited me to give a satellite talk but asked that I be on stand-by should the Skype link to James Randi not work. I jumped at the opportunity to do my thing to fill the slot. Luckily for everyone concerned the link to Randi went fine. All the speakers were superstars and I think a last minute entry would have looked just like that.

Anyway back to Jonathan Ross. I knew he was at the meeting but never thought that I would be mingling in this group. I was about to pick up the plate to self-serve the lunch laid on when Wossy entered the room. My heart skipped a beat. “Get a grip man! Reign those emotions in with reason” But then Wossy spots me and walks over, clamping an arm around my shoulder and forcing a handshake.“Great to see you, sorry I won’t be able to make your show tonight.”

I freeze like a rabbit caught in the headlights and transfixed by his famous smile. Is this a windup? An elaborate hoax to tease the poor professor? Have I been set up? I’m shaking Jonathan Bloody Ross’s hand. My mouth goes dry.

“I..I… think .. you may have mistaken me for someone else.” Still smiling, “Sorry I thought you were Robin Ince, I’m Jonathan.”  “Yes I know, I’m Bruce.”

A few more exchanges of small talk and we both proceed to fill our plates. But my hands are shaking and every time I try to balance a piece of quiche on the fork it drops pitifully. I quickly exit the serving table to seek refuge. I sit at one of the tables trying to look as nonchalant as possible but I know that I must look white, and I can feel the beads of sweat streaming down my face.

It took some time for my autonomic arousal system to return to some semblance of normality. How many famous hands have Wossy’s hands touched? What essences have exchanged in those handshakes. Connected by 7 degrees of separation just got shortened by miles.

Over the rest of the day we chatted again (about killer’s clothing and stigmatized houses). I am  sure I rambled but at least I didn’t look like a sweating ghost – I hope. His daughter later told me that “Dad’s vision isn’t so great,” but actually over the course of the weekend I would be mistaken again for Robin Ince another five times. One delegate actually got annoyed with me for not accepting his compliment! “If you are not Robin Ince, then who the hell are you?”

When I finally did meet Robin Ince, I went straight up to him and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Robin Ince!”

You decide

Bruce Ince?

Bruce Ince?

Robin Hood?

Robin Hood?


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

Zombie Movie in 1 Minute

You know how I like stories about zombies. I am incredibly busy at the moment but just had to post this brilliant video that I found over at Pod Black

I think that all movies should be made like this.


Filed under General Thoughts

Chance, Romance & Lucky Pants

I am speaking at a satellite gathering tonight before this weekend’s The Amazing Meeting in London. I would have liked to have given a talk at the main event but there were no slots left. Anyway, after seeing me give a Skeptics in the Pub event back in June, über-organizer Tracy King suggested that I should talk about skeptics and dating – as if I am someone who knows alot about this. But it all came about after my answer to a question raised from the floor about why we still have irrational beliefs in today’s society. I said that relationships were especially dependent on having a degree of irrational thought because applying analytical thinking when considering your partner was, well unromantic. Couples thrive on the possibility of magic otherwise known as love. I am not sure how this idea will go down. I’ll let you know.


Filed under General Thoughts