Category Archives: In the News

Lecture One “What’s Inside Your Head”

If you live outside the UK and want to see the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, they will be posted on the Ri site over the next few days. Here is the link to the first one.

What’s In Your Head

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Blind Every Time You Move Your Eyes

For those of you outside the UK, here is an excerpt from the first of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures explaining what happens each time you move your eyes. I’ll get back to regular blogging once I clear the backlog of chores.

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Trailer Teaser for the Lectures

I am not fully recovered yet – also getting over a darn cold but here is a teaser of the lectures which will be broadcast next week. They were sent to the BBC today for technical review so there’s no turning back now! YIKES!!!!

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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!

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Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Superstitious Politicians

I'm telling you put it all on 45

This time of year is always a surefire bet that weird supernatural beliefs will start to appear in the media. With Halloween looming, I had a quick peek to see who was topping the nutty charts. I note that my friend and colleague Jesse Bering (author of the eminently readable “The God Instinct”) was asked to comment on Hermain Cain for “The Daily Beast.” Cain who is the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO is putting himself forward for the presidential race. In his manifesto, he devotes a whole chapter to the special significance of the number 45 – the year he was born. Cain believes that this number has punctuated his entire life in a meaningful way and believes it will aid him to becoming, yup you guessed it, the 45th president of the US.

To be fair, Obama was equally superstitious during his rise to the Whitehouse, always playing basketball on the morning of each primary election. Other politicians have been equally frank about their superstitious rituals. It would seem that it was a prerequisite for standing for high political office! God forbid that anyone should say that the were not superstitious!

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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.

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Filed under book publicity, Essentialism, supernatural, Television

Magpies – Truly a Devil Bird

One of the most common and yet peculiar superstitions in the UK is to salute a single magpie (Pica pica) to avoid bad luck. This is often accompanied by some form of salutation such as “Good Morning, Mr Magpie, where is your wife?” Magpies are monogamous and mate for life so a solitary bird has been considered a bad omen. The custom has also been traced to the myth that the bird was the only species not present at the crucifixion, lending to the belief that it is a cursed bird that brings bad luck.

Don't Look Back - Just Ride!

Certainly that seems to true if you happen to be riding a bike during the spring in Australia, where the local variety is noted for territorial aggression. Last Sunday, four-year-old Seth McInnes, out riding his bike in a Toowoomba park near Brisbane, Australia, was attacked by a magpie that pecked out his left eye leaving him blind in that eye and in excruciating pain. When I read this story, I was reminded of the shock scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” where the birds peck out the eyes of various victims. Such swoopng attacks are not uncommon during the August/September mating season for the male Australian magpie which is a much bigger version of its European cousin. The article even has advice about how to avoid attacks and injury such as wearing broad brimmed hats and dark glasses. Apparently, magpies will not attack if you look at them directly and if you walk through a danger zone, draw eyes on the back of a hat or wear your sunglasses on the back of your head. I don’t think I would risk staring down a swooping aggressive magpie and prefer the shotgun tactic.

BTW, the Latin word for magpie, “pica” is also the term for the weird psychological disorder, where sufferers eat non-nutritive substances such as nails, glass, buttons, dirt etc. The origin for the word comes from the belief that magpies eat and collect almost anything and especially have an eye for shiny things.

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Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

Killer Phone Numbers

This is where you'll end up if you return a call in Nigeria

I had a meeting this week with several colleagues to discuss a bid to one of the research councils who are interested in funding research into conspiracy. So my mind is focused on this aspect of human reasoning where individuals believe that there are nefarious parties at work subverting society.

I just saw this piece on the BBC News website about a Nigerian urban myth that if you respond to a text message with an ID number of 09141, you die. A bit like watching that spooky video in “The Ring.” According to the brief report, up to 10 people are believed to have died returning this call. Now I have good grounds to ignore all those Nigerian emails from women whose husbands have died but left millions of dollars in bank accounts that they are happy to share with me if only I give them my bank details.

BTW I remembered I had this image of an African coffin shaped like a mobile phone on an earlier blog that dated back to 2009. I cannot believe I remarked about the exponential rise in FaceBook users at 175 million users. The current figure is around 750 millions users. Now that’s a conspiracy!

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I Hear The Light… But Feel S.A.D.

Pseudoscience that makes me SAD

There is something very uplighting about sunshine for anyone who has ever lived in Scotland or most of Northern Europe for that matter. On the flipside, Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a depressive mood that is linked to the winter months when the days shorten. Apparently, one way to treat SAD is to use phototherapy by sitting in front of a light box for a couple of hours, thereby mimicking the longer days of summer. I am not sure if it works over and beyond a placebo and I am at a loss to know how one could produce a control for light, but hell, if it works, it works. However, one recent development of phototherapy is really pushing the boundaries of credibility.

According to the website, the Valkee “substitutes the mood-elevating effects of the sun, by channeling safe bright light directly to photosensitive regions of the brain through the ear canal.” Now if I was naive, I might think, “Well I feel more miserable during the winter and phototherapy is supposed to work but I can’t sit in front of a box for two hours. I know I’ll plug it straight into my brain through my ears.”

The last time I looked, receptors sensitive to photons were in the retina. You could rip of the back of someone’s skull and shove the brightest beam into their visual cortex and they would still see absolutely nothing. And the visual cortex is nowhere near the ears. I know, lets shout at the auditory cortex to find out if we can hear better.

Oh I give up sometimes. I am not even going to bother reviewing the ‘scientific evidence’ for this one.

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King Arthur Loses His Battle to Protect Druid Remains

King Arthur

King Arthur Pendragon (formerly known as John Timothy Rothwell) lost his battle at the High Court today to prevent Sheffield University researchers conducting further research on the cremated remains of at least 40 individuals that were discovered at Stonehenge in 2008. Signing himself into the court register as “Arthur Rex” King Arthur (57) who changed his name by deed pole in 1986  told the judge that the bones were remains of members of the “royal line” or “priest caste” who could have been the “founding fathers of this great nation.” However Mr Justice Wyn Williams refused permission to launch a judicial review action, ruling that there was insufficient grounds that the investigators had acted unreasonably.

I have often wondered how these decisions are arrived at. We know in recent years that museums have had to return the remains of a number of indigenous peoples whose modern day ancestors have requested them back for burial. But what is considered reasonable? Some relics are hundreds of years old. So it can’t be simply time. What happens when national boundaries shift? What does it mean to be British? Many of these issues of origins are steeped in psychological notions of identity which are more to do with narratives, rather than well defined categories and yet people expend a lot of effort and grief over chunks of matter.

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