Category Archives: Essentialism

Oh Those Sexy Swedes

I am due to give a talk in Gothenburg (Göteborg) Sweden next April at a International Science Festival. I was planning on talking about The Self Illusion or some other brain-related talk but after hearing about the arrest of an unnamed woman who has been charged with violating the peace of the dead, I think that I must talk about disgust and essentialism.

When police turned up her apartment they discoverd over 100 human bones and initially thought that a murder had taken place. It turns out that she probably obtained them from a morgue. However, it is not the theft that has the liberal Swedes in such a bother but rather this may be a bona fide case of necrophilia.

In addition to the bones, they discovered photos on two CDs labelled “My necrophilia” and “My first experience” which contained a number of document files and pictures where she is using the bones as sex toys. I am assuming that the femur came in handy. I have posted one of the less disturbing images of her licking a skull. Actually, the one of the skull and her teddy bear kills two birds with one image so that I can talk about essential objects and how these are extensions of our materialism of the self.

Somehow, I don’t think I can resist the temptation to talk about our attitudes to the dead and the bones they leave behind when I visit in the spring. This will be one example of disgust that the Swedish audience should understand!


Filed under Essentialism, General Thoughts

The Bears Are Back

Apologies for my absence but I have been working on a new book which has a December delivery date. It is due out next year and to be published by Penguin. That will be five books since 2009 (two academic, SuperSense, The Self Illusion & the new one) I am also blogging over at the Huffington Post and Psychology Today and it is the start of the academic year so I have all the teaching as well so as you can imagine, it is difficult to find the time.

Excuses, excuses. Anyway, I thought I would tell you about children’s sentimental toys as there is a growing interest in this. Journalist Laura Wexler interviewed me for a forthcoming article she is writing for The New Republic magazine about adults’ attachment objects. I have also been contacted by an artist, Susan Swartzberg, who has started a remarkable project called “The Honey Project” to collect stories and images of adult’s attachment object. She has created a Facebook page about it and you can visit the Honey Project wonderful website that looks fab. If you have one of these object please visit.

Of course, I covered sentimental objects in SuperSense and continue to research this fascinating aspect of child development. Do you remember the photograph of the wanted poster in the book? Well here is another.

In July this summer The Daily Mail reported this story of the Swedish police who have posted a similar wanted poster for a child’s missing teddy bear on their official Facebook page. Immediately the police force was criticised by some who thought they should be dealing with more important issues. In defense the police replied, ” The article above was written by an off-duty policeman, so the cost to us was zero. If we, through two minutes’ work, can help her get her friend back, we’d say it’s good prioritizing, don’t you think?”

Hear, Hear.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

The Haunted Golf Club

A number of you sent me the link to a study just published on the effects on performance after telling golfers that the club they are using was previously owned by a pro-golfer. The study by Charles Lee & Sally Linkenauger, published in PLoS ONE asked students who were avid golfers to putt using a club they were told belonged to ace golfer Ben Curtis. Their performance was superior to a matched group of students who were told that the same club was simply “a really nice putter.” The article goes on to consider several issues related to confidence in sports performance and even mentions an interview with Paul Rozin who of course, brings up positive contagion effects.

I expect many readers are saying,”So what? It is simply association and positive thinking.” This is always a problem when discussing essentialism and contagion effects. Hopefully in the new year we should have some research ready for publication that speaks directly to the “So what, its association” put-down of these findings but for the moment, I am grateful to those of you who sent me this as I have very little time to scan the media for worthy stories at the moment. Must dash!


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Wellcome to My Charming World

This week the Wellcome Trust opened an exhibition in London called Miracles & Charms. It is actually two exhibits in one. The Miracle component, ‘Infinitas Gracias’ (Infinite Thank You)  is the first major display of Mexican votive paintings outside of Mexico. Votives are small paintings, usually executed on tin roof tiles or small plaques, depicting the moment of personal humility when an individual asks a saint for help and is delivered from disaster and sometimes death. Over a hundred votives dating from the 18th century are in the exhibition. They are usually displayed in Mexican churches as gestures of thanksgiving, replacing powerful doctrine-driven images of the saints with personal and direct pleas for help. The religious imagery depicted in these vernacular paintings is at the heart of famous works of art by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera were avid votive collectors

Votives are an intimate records of the tumultuous dramas of everyday life – lightning strikes, gunfights, motor accidents, ill-health and false imprisonment – in which saintly intervention was believed to have led to survival and reprieve.

Charming. If only they could do something to stop the carnage of the Mexican Drug Wars that is currently destroying the country. When I troll the web looking for unusual stories and items for this blog, I am often shocked by the amount of grisly footage of killings that is being posted by the gangs and vigilantes. For such a devout country, where is religion in all this horror?

'I thank our Lord Saint Francis of Assisi for saving us from drowning on 27 Oct 1962'

The other component of the exhibition is “Charmed Life” made up 1400 amulets assembled by the Edwardian amateur folklorist Edward Lovett. The artist Felicity Powell who put the exhibit together describes how these objects seem to retain an insistent sense that they might yet hold some hidden magic. Does that sound familiar?

The front feet of a mole are permanently curved for digging, and this curved appearance is so suggestive of cramp that these feet are carried as a cure for cramp.

A BBC researcher called me this week to appear on national Morning television to discuss the exhibition as an expert of lucky charms. I was very tempted as this would have been great publicity for SuperSense but I declined the offer. I am now preparing for the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (which is why I have less time for posting blogs) and have moved on from my interest in supernatural thinking. I also have a new book coming out in the Spring so I want to shed the spooky scientist label that my interest in supernatural objects conjures up. However, I will be dropping into the exhibit when I am next in London on my way to the RI,  as it looks too good to miss.


Filed under book publicity, Essentialism, supernatural, Television

Woman Is Eating Her Husband

The season finale of “My Strange Addiction” reports the bizarre case of  26-old-old Casie, a widow who is gradually eating the cremated remains of her husband who died from an asthma attack. While transferring his remains from crematorium box to an urn, she accidentally got some of his ashes on her fingers. Rather than simply wiping her husband off, she decided to lick them. Unfortunately this has developed into a bizarre behaviour of eating the cremated remains which taste of  “rotten eggs, sand and sandpaper.” Apparently Casie is at risk of the chemicals used to embalm her husband which are still present in the ashes but her greatest fear is what to do when he is all gone. She has already consumed 1lb of the ashes in two months and there is only 5lbs left.  Yet another extraordinary example of essentialism. You can read more and see the video here


Filed under Essentialism, Weird Story of the Week

What to Do With the Bloody Qur’an?

Saddam's Blood Qur'an poses a Dilemma

Don’t worry, I am not suggesting desecration of the Islamic Holy book nor am I endorsing the attention-seeking antics of Pastor Terry Jones. Rather the bloody Qur’an in question is the one created out of 27 litres taken from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein over two years that was painstakingly turned into a holy book. We learn from this piece in yesterday’s Guardian that since the Iraq invasion, the Blood Qur’an has been kept locked away in a vault inside a vast mosque in Baghdad.

The problem is that some prominent politicians want to rid Iraq of all connections with Saddam. In 2005, the Iraqi Government formed a committee to oversee the removal of symbols linked to Saddam. The trouble is that destroying the Qur’an would be sacrilegious. Even the reporter covering the piece was asked to stand at least 10 feet away from the glass housing the relic. I doubt there is a devout Muslim who will be able to burn it. What a dilemma?

I wish had known about Saddam’s Blood Qur’an when I was researching, “SuperSense.” In retrospect, I think he produced the mother of all essentialist relics!


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Murderbillia Coffin For Sale

Not the last resting place of Lee Harvey Oswald

Murderbillia is the growing trend to collect objects that are connected with murderers in the same way that some people collect memorabilia of celebrities. Today we learn that the coffin of JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald is to go under the auctioneer’s hammer later this month. Bidding is starting at $1,000 but I predict that the final price will much, much higher as museums get interested in any Kennedy memorabilia. The coffin is on sale because they disinterred Oswald’s body to satisfy yet another conspiracy theory that the corpse had been switched with a lookalike Russian agent. When they found that the corpse was indeed Oswald’s they re-buried it in a new casket. GIven all the decades that have passed since Oswald was buried, I am sure the original simple pine box has plenty of Oswald’s essence in it!


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Murderer’s Uniform Goes Up in Flames

A number of you have sent me the report in Canada’s “The Globe and Mail” last week about Russell Williams, the former Canadian Air Forces Colonel who was arrested earlier this year for the murder and rape of young women. Last month, he was found guilty of multiple murders and assaults. He is currently serving two life sentences and is unlikely to be ever set free.

Prior to his arrest, Williams had led an upstanding military life. He was highly decorated, had flown dignitaries and Royals around, was a keen fisherman and avid golfer along with his wife. But behind this facade lurked a different Russell Williams. Initially, he started off as a fetishist who broke into young women’s homes to steal their underwear. He kept detailed records of police reports of the crimes he committed and took photographs of himself wearing the trophies.

One of the worst set of images I have ever posted

Normally, I find pictures of grown men dressed in female underwear faintly amusing but these images of Williams that were published in the Montreal Gazette are shocking even for me. With two young daughters, it is difficult to remain impartial when considering Williams in a detached manner.

The reason I am telling you about Williams, is that last week the Canadian Forces burned all his military clothing. According to Canadian Forces spokesperson Cmdr. Hubert Genest, the idea to burn the uniforms had emerged “from the bottom up and been endorsed by the chain of command.”

“We did what we felt was necessary,” said Cmdr. Genest. “It feels right.”

Various commentators called the act unprecedented  but I would contest that it is simply a manifestation of evil contamination as described in SuperSense. This was more than symbolism – these items were infested with evil essence. What’s more, the authorities would not comment about the black market interest in murderbillia – the perverse collecting of items associated with murderers.

With over 346 comments on the article, you can tell that feelings run high for this case. I find it quite disturbing but we need to be aware that individuals can be made up of multiple selves.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Soul Music

Andvinyl Records

If you have been following this blog then you will know that there are people who will pay good money to have their mortal remains turned into objects to leave behind. Some of these are useful like eco-friendly artificial reefs. Others are more personal, like the diamonds that can be created from cremated remains.

One enterprising UK company, has gone for the yooof market – or at least those who appreciate vinyl records. For £3,000, you can have your ashes pressed into a vinyl record, as well as any last message or favorite tunes. With lots of gallows humour (something that I am quite partial to) you can choose suggestions from the “raveyard” or just leave the record blank so that loved ones can listen to your “pop and crackles” – the unique quality of vinyl that purists enthuse about.

For an extra £3,500, you can have you portrait painted by either James Hague (National Portrait Gallery) or Paul Insect (street artist) for a cover design. One wonders if they do death bed sittings, though the fact that they will mix your ashes into the paint does suggest that you should be dead first.

Still good luck to them. It all smacks of essentialism again – that core of human cognition that needs to keep contact with the material essence of others. It just wouldn’t work with a digital recording – that’s too artificial!


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

From Me to You Tattoo

I’ve been thinking about tattoos quite a bit recently. I suppose it started when I went to TAM and saw so many people with them including the former JREF president Phil Plait who has meteor on his shoulder that he had recently done courtesy of LA Ink. Phil claims it was all part of a bet but deep down, I think that he wanted to join the growing ranks of geeks who have them. Carl Zimmer, who I met at SciFoo even has a science tattoo emporium which is well worth a visit. Why do so many people want to be inked? It can’t be for individuality.

I think that I am increasingly becoming a minority and I suppose each to his own. Some that I saw at TAM were very beautiful but I am such a fickle individual that I could never commit to a permanent pattern on my skin. Also, I have always thought that while tattoos may look cool on young skin, the ravages of time, gravity and tissue distortion rarely do justice to the artist’s original designs when you get to the wrinkly old age I am – there again who cares?

However, help may be at hand for the less committed like me. At SciFoo, I heard from the director of a new company that is working with silk of all products to produce a tattoo that is modifiable using electronics and light-sensitive components. If they manage to pull this off then this will be a megabuck industry. I am reminded of a good female friend of mine who revealed that her Chinese character tattoo for “woman” that she had done on her arm raised a titter from a native speaker, who said that she had been in fact, been permanently inked with the symbol for the ladies. It would be like having “Gents” tattooed on me.

Dead Son Tattooed into Mum

So where’s the woo angle here. Well this need for an intimate, permanent display reached a supersense level when the Metro reported that a 50-year-old British mother, who had lost her son Lloyd to a drugs overdose, had his cremated ashes mixed in with ink and then tattooed into three patterns on her back. She said, ‘I’ve put Lloyd back where he started – he’s in my body again. As soon as I knew it was possible, I wanted to have the ashes tattoos as a tribute to Lloyd.’ This is reminiscent of the Victorian mourning jewellery that was made from the deceased’s hair. However, technology has moved on and as I noted in an earlier post, it is possible to have the carbon ashes of your loved one made into a diamond by LifeGem. However, incorporating the remains of the lost one into your body in a tattoo seems more intimate – a feature of essentialism that I discussed in the book.

So what’s your opinion of tattoos? Do they need to be permanent or would you prefer the option of changing them? And what about having the remnants of a loved one permanently etched into your skin?


Filed under Essentialism, General Thoughts