Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Owlman of Mawnan

Leonora Carrington

On learning of the death this week of the last surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington at the ripe old age of 94, I did a little background research and was amazed to discover what a bizarre life she led. She hung out with Picasso, fled the Nazis and escaped from a psychiatric hospital but it was her love affair with Max Ernst that I thought would interest you.

Born into a very wealthy background in 1917, Leonora was expelled from several convents for her “eccentricity, usually a combination of anti-social tendencies and certain supernatural proclivities.” At the age of 19 she met and fell in love with the much older and married Max Ernst, one of the leaders of the Dada and Surrealist movements.

In 1937 Max and Leonora visited the village of Mawnan, Cornwall where they are said to have performed rituals to invoke the appearance of therianthorpes (half-man half-animal). One of these was said to be the Nightjarman a half bird, half human creature. The birdman was to become a recurrent iconic theme in Ernst’s artwork and also featured in some of Leonora’s work. Max and Leonora led a bizarre tempestuous life but eventually went their separate ways.

In 1976, Ernst died but a couple of weeks after his death, some peculiar sightings were reported in Mawnan. Don Melling had been visiting the area on holiday from Lancaster with his family when his two daughters, 12-year-old June and her 9-year-old sister, Vicky, were walking through the woods near the church. Suddenly the two girls saw a large winged creature hovering above the church tower.

Drawing of the Owlman based on girls sighting

Paranormal researcher Tony “Doc” Shiels who was in the area interviewed the girls and produced a sketch based on what the girls reported. The Owlman of Mawnan had been born. Soon there were other reports of the strange creature. The last sighting was in the 1990s but the Cornish Owlman has become established folklore.

Now that Leonora has also died, I wonder if we will now hear reports of two owls around the village?

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Cat Women & Parasitic Personalities

In August 2008, Rosemary Alvarez from Arizona thought she had the flu. She felt chronically tired and irritable. But when she started feeling numbness in her left arm and her vision became blurred, she knew it was more than flu. She was taken to hospital where an MRI scan revealed that she had a brain tumor around her brain stem. Her neurosurgeon Peter Nakaji, went into this most delicate area in the middle of the brain expecting the worst. Tumors in this region are notoriously difficult to excise because this brain area controls many the major bodily functions that keep us alive. A slip of his scalpel could leave this woman on a ventilator for life. However, as he sliced the outer casing of the tissue around the tumor, he got a pleasant surprise that would make the rest of us wretch – it wasn’t a tumor, but a live tapeworm, taenia solium, that wriggled out. This little fella was far easier to remove than a tumor chuckled Dr Nakaji, and it was the fifth one he had removed that year.

Our bodies are full of parasites that most of us are blissfully unaware of. For example, our guts contain a multitude of bacteria that are essential for digestion and without them we would die. However, Rosemary’s tapeworm was an unwelcome guest that came from eating undercooked pork and poor personal hygiene. What is interesting in her case is the idea that another living organism invading her body had changed Rosemary. The tapeworm wasn’t literally eating her brain like a worm in an apple but it was causing an infection – the natural bodily response to cope with external agents. All manner of things can cause brain infections that lead to changes in personality. We are our brains and if these are damaged, then we are changed, but sometimes the effects can be very subtle.

In what must be one of the most outlandish propositions to appear in recent years, Kevin Lafferty is a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who thinks that a common parasitic infestation may have influenced the whole of society. Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a parasite, typically hosted in cats, that has an interesting life cycle. When the cat defecates, the T. gondii is excreted in the cat feces. Along comes a hungry rat that is less than discerning and nibbles the cat litter containing T. gondii. Inside its new host, the parasite works its way into the brain of the rat where it creates an infection in the region of the amgydala disrupting the normal rat behavior by altering the levels of dopamine. The infected rat now becomes less fearful and adverse to the smell of cats – dangerous changes in behavior that increases the likelihood that the rat in turn, will be eaten by another cat thereby completing the T. gondii cycle.

But T. gondii is not restricted to cats and rats. Approximately one third of the humans on the planet have been exposed and Lafferty believes that this epidemic may have shaped human culture. He explains, “”We have a parasite in our brain that is trying to get transmitted to a cat. This changes an individual’s personality.” In fact, research on humans indicates that chronic T. gondii infection causes significant behavioral changes. It has been reported that in comparison to those who are not infected, women become more intelligent, outgoing, conscientious, sexually promiscuous, and kind whereas men show the opposite profile. It is not clear why the infection would affect women differently to men either. With the gradual domestication of the cat over the course of modern civilization, Lafferty argues that the associated chronic T. gondii infection in the human population is one factor that could have shaped cultural evolution.

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Rock’n’Roll Scientists

I am on my way home by plane & train so this travel gives me an opportunity to blog my reflections on the past couple of days. As if you didn’t know, (& I wouldn’t let it slip your mind) I supported the Uncaged Monkeys (they have already taken on the status of rock’n’roll scientists) to a 1600 packed Colston hall on Thursday night – that’s the biggest audience I‘ve ever done.

The evening started typically whenever Robin and I appear at the same venue. As I entered Colston Hall, a few early fans recognized me and tried to halt my movement to the backstage. “Heh, it’s ..” Before the fan had the chance to finish his remark, I retorted, “No, I am not Robin Ince.” I wish I was making this up but it happens every time. Then one of his mates chirped in, “Oh, its only Bruce Hood, ha ha ha.” Last year in London I even autographed a programme for someone who looked at the scrawled signature first in confusion and then disgust when I explained I was not the comic they admired.

For the rest of the night I would have to get used to this feeling of inferiority. Of course, none of the monkeys or the wonderful sides acts, Helen Arney and Matt Parker, were precious – they were all incredibly generous but I did feel like an interloper. I think they should not bother with guests in the future who really cut into the time that the audience wants to spend with their beloved monkeys.

It was a daunting night in many ways. I have met Ince, Cox, Goldacre and Singh all before individually, but somehow the weight of the monkeys together exceeded their combined mass. I am not saying I was star-struck but I did feel a bit like a gatecrasher.

A Rock Star

Initially I had planned to record the whole evening and brought along a tiny compact camera but it just didn’t seem right to be taking pictures even though the Cox was wandering around with a massive big one keeping a photographic account of the tour. I did manage to get this sneaky snap off stage of Brian but even then, I felt uncomfortable. These are just ordinary guys but something very strange happens when they are surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans.

What are they like in person? Really great guys and genuine – they are exactly what they seem to be. Though I’ll just say this. Brian is surprisingly hilarious and a good mimic given that this is not his usual public persona. He told a couple of anecdotes that had me creasing up – but they are my stories and I am not sharing them with you. Anyway, I did my slot, spoke probably too fast for most, got the neuroscience out there and made the audience laugh in the end – mission accomplished.

When the show was over, we hung back to avoid the groupies – yes they were apparently really out there. I got speaking to Brian’s former grad student Tamsin who is now a post-doc at Bristol who was lovely and we all ended up at the hotel drinking wine and discussing the future of science funding. Alas I had to leave early about 1am to catch a flight to Aberdeen in the morning.

When I woke up, I was feeling a little worse for wear but I made it to Aberdeen’s Word Festival the following afternoon. After dropping in to say hello Scotland’s smartest social cognitive neuroscientists Macrae & Turk for an hour, I headed to the festival. Just before I went on, I met Michael Brooks. Michael is a star – smart, erudite, funny, witty – the full monty of charm. He is a science journalist for a number of publications including the New Scientist and has also written a best-seller, “13 Things That Don’t Make Sense.” He had done his slot earlier in the day but we were both scheduled to do a double act for the local Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub event later that evening.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a marquee tent almost full with about 100 people who had come to see me. My self-esteem was boosted so I was fairly relaxed to the surprise of the AV technician who said I was the most organized and laid back presenter he had dealt with yet. The talk went pretty well and I even sold a bunch of books at the signing where the people were very kind and generous. It felt good.

I then hooked up with Michael and we headed off to the evening event. The Skeptics in the Pub event was sold out but they are a very different type of crowd. Younger, geekier, and often with very strong opinions. I soon discovered that both Michael and I are considered moderates rather than militants on issues like religion, homeopathy so we ended up being more on the backfoot than maybe the crowd had anticipated, but it was all very good natured and both Heather and Alun, the instigators of Aberdeen SitP did a very good job of controlling the crowd. I did not really present any content – In fact I told them that this was the last time that I would be talking about SuperSense and that I was moving on to new pastures. So instead I ranted on about what science is, why beliefs are inevitable and so on. Michael and I gave as good as we got and could have gone on for hours so I think that we succeeded in whipping the crowd into the right critical frame of mind which is what I think SitP is supposed to be.

I was really beginning to think the evening was mine until I rather stupidly asked whether anyone had been to the Uncaged Monkeys gig in Aberdeen the previous Sunday. There was roar of approval and swooning by the females (and males) and then I knew that, even though they were not there, the Uncaged Monkeys had still managed to steal the show again.

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Filed under book publicity, In the News

The Fall of Rome?

For all you out there who are not fans of the Vatican, fear not, as the papal city and the rest of Rome for that matter, is to be reduced to rubble tomorrow according to seismologist Raffaele Bendandi. Already, many Romans are leaving the city and it is predicted that one fifth of the workforce is not turning up to work tomorrow.

But how accurate are Bendandi’s readings? Pretty spooky to be honest – the man has been dead for 30 years! That’s right. The whole of Rome is getting itself in a tiss about this urban rumor that is circulating on the internet. Anyway, many Romans are putting their faith in the papa. One inhabitant, Franceso Verselli, said that Rome would be spared because it was home to the Pope: “Wherever the Pope is, nothing will happen.” Maybe he’ll say a prayer so that the earthquake doesn’t happen.

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Human Cheese Please

It was only a matter of time before someone came up with the bright idea of making cheese from human breast milk. You may remember that I covered this a couple of years ago when I blogged about the Swiss restaurant that was serving dishes made from human breast milk. Here we have an entire cheese shop in NYC selling produce made from human milk. Given that cheese is already rancid milk, I guess it can’t get much more disgusting. Still the lady is right – why is it alright to eat animal lactation and not human?

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Ode to the Brain

I am working my little cotton socks off at the moment and likely to be so for the rest of the year. So in the interests of making you return to my blog often (I need your approval) I will be posting less frequently and more bits’n’bobs. Normal service will be resumed once I kill off all my deadlines.

Here is something cute on a topic close to my head.

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Dogs Do Have a Theory of Mind

There has been some controversy about whether or not that dogs have self-awareness. For example, they classically fail the self-recognition mirror test where you surreptitiously place a dab of make-up on their face and see if they respond to it when they look in the mirror. Human infants typically respond to this test by touching the mark of their own face from around about 18 months of age. Other species including chimpanzees also have self-recognition on the mirror test thought there is still some debate about whether all other primates have this ability. This by the way was one of the first disputed research studies that got my former colleague Marc Hauser at Harvard into so much trouble. He reported that cotton-top tamarrins recognized when their hair had been dyed pinkizzimo punk pink but later had to retract the paper.

One animal for which there has also been some debate is the domesticated dog. They do not pass the mirror self-recognition but many dog owners are convinced that their pets know what they are thinking. Dogs have been selectively bred from wolves over 15,000 years for their sociability but I am still not sure whether they can appreciate mental states of others. Without this ability, communication would be almost impossible as understanding another fully requires having a Theory of Mind.

Anyway, I have just received this evidence that settles the matter. Clearly they do.

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Welcome to Head Lice Control

When my girls were younger,  I remember the horror of discovering their first infestation of head lice. Despite the reassurances that “lice prefer clean hair” you still feel that a hoard of aliens have taken of the head of your beloved child. After the third or fourth reoccurrence, you resigned yourself to the truth that all kids get them but that some parents were less concerned about treating them. I can understand. You have to shampoo the hair and then comb out the lice and eggs. It was like painting the Forth Road Bridge – an endless task.

One HELCU - yours for £19

Anyway, that could all change. If you go to Wincanton, Somerset (Yet another example of woomongery in my neck of the woods – must be something to do with all the leigh lines we have about here) you arrive at the Maperton Trust which according to their website is Head Lice Control.  We are told that 20 years of research has lead to the development of the HELRU (head lice repelling unit). What is this amazing innovative technology that combats the fiendish pediculosis capitis? Why it’s a £19 badge with a picture of a unicorn on it. Does it work? Sure. Why not check out the testimonial from a school teacher who wrote,

To whom it may concern

I am a primary school teacher who has been troubled with head lice since I began teaching nearly five years ago. I started using the Maperton Trust’s device about four months ago. The lice disappeared within a few weeks and have yet to return despite the fact that the children in my class continue to suffer from them.

Fiona Woods

Or consider the letter from a grandmother

Further to my telephone call to you today re-head lice badge, I enclose a cheque for 3 which you have reserved for me. I got one for my grand-daughter Tanya in January and until begining of April when she unfortunately lost it she hadn’t had any ‘Lice’ but within a few days of losing it my daughter found some again, as she had mixed with children that had them, so we believe the badge does work, and hopefully you may have some requests for more, as 2 of these are for Tanya’s friends.

Thank you,

Yours faithfully,

Mrs. E. Hobbs.

And if that is not enough just check out this brilliant statistical analysis of a twelve week trial based on 28 children.

This swings it for me!

Apparently this evidence has not been enough to satisfy the Advertising Standards Agency who have told the Maperton Trust to remove the claims from their website. What cynics. Anyway if you take the time to explore the Maperton Trust site you can discover all manner of amazing science such as radionics and brain broadcasting. This Trust and all of its groundbreaking work appears to be the brainchild of Gordon who is featured on the site alongside many of his animals at his barn in Wincanton. Here he is with his horse. His cat also features prominently on his site but unlike other country animals, I am sure that none of these have fleas. That’s because they have a picture of a unicorn protecting them.

I really should go into this business!

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