Tag Archives: belief

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

Sleeping with the Fishes

Image10The BBC correspondent Heather Alexander highlighted a feature this morning on Breakfast Time television about the Eternal Reefs company in the US who, for a fee of up to $6,495 (£4,000), will incorporate the ashes of a loved one into a concrete pod that is designed to encourage marine life and coral once deposited 3 miles off the coast. So far, around 1,000 such reef balls have been dropped on the ocean floor.

Families and friends are invited and encouraged to attend and participate in the casting of their loved ones.  The process includes mixing the remains into an environmentally safe concrete reef mixture to create their Memorial Reef. According to the website, “Once the Memorial Reefs have been cast, family and friends are given the opportunity to put handprints and written messages in the damp concrete reef mixture. Many loved ones feel this is a wonderful way to stay in touch for eternity.”

I don’t regard this as reefer madness. The interviews with the relatives were very revealing about the way many felt that the deceased would still be alive as part of a living coral reef.  This is a manifestation of essentialism and mind/body dualism that is so typical of the supersense, but one with good ecological intentions. As manager George Frankel said in the interview, “It’s a win-win situation for the relatives and the fish.”04250027z


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

“Witch-Burning” in Africa

I was contacted a week ago by the BBC World Service to comment on the findings of a survey conducted by the public theology think tank, Theos. The survey of over 2000 UK residents revealed that on average, 40% believe in ghosts, 70% believe in the human soul, 55% believe in heaven and 27% believe in reincarnation. I don’t know why everyone was so surprised by these figures. I had already predicted them in “SuperSense.” No, I am not psychic. It’s just that people are remarkably consistent when it comes to believing in the supernatural. The last Gallup poll in 2005 revealed similar prevalence of supernatural beliefs, haunted houses (40%), astrology (24%), communication with the dead (27%) and the possibility of witches (13%).  

What’s more, there is little evidence that the UK is any more “rational” than our American cousins as I give these percentages in the book. Yes, the UK is more secular than the US where 9 out of 10 people say then believe in God but we are no less susceptible to supernatural beliefs. As GK Chesterton allegedly commented, “When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

That does not mean we should throw in the towel and give up on scientific education. Far from it. While supernatural beliefs may be inevitable that does not mean that they are always acceptable. Sometimes beliefs are used to justify cruelty and killings (see my earlier posts on ‘muti’ killings in Africa and the slaughter of albinos for their body parts). Those of you of a strong enough constitution may want to see the horrific and distressing footage of witch-burning in Africa posted on Hemant Metha’s  Friendly Atheist site but I warn you it is probably the worst thing you will ever witness. [I am updating this section as the video has already upset a number of you so I suggest you seriously consider whether you should watch it]

I have not posted this link to be morbidly gratuitous, but simply to remind me that supernatural beliefs are not just a trivial interest restricted to black cats and walking under ladders but rather a fundamental component of human behavior that leads people to some of the worst acts imaginable. In SuperSense I discuss other outrages such as the virgin-cure myth and cases of cannibalism that are equally based on supernatural beliefs.

With regard to the murder of elderly tribe members condemned as witches, commentators have accused religion and supernatural belief as being primarily  responsible for such acts but I question whether these acts are more to do with poverty and desperation in a lawless society or one that permits such behavior. Attacking the weak and vulnerable is a common terror strategy. In the West, we tend to have short memories when it comes to considering the worst chapter of human genocide in Europe. I wonder whether we would revert to similar practices if our society similarly deteriorated.

So while I think that belief in the supernatural is universal, that does not mean we have to tolerate the crimes against humanity done in its name. But it is better to know the extent of the problem and understand its true nature and origins if you want to prevent such atrocities.



Filed under supernatural

Why Wine Turns into Moonshine

bachusthe-god-of-the-wine-oil-on-canvas-50-x-40cmitaly-2003Today, I enjoyed a cheeky little chardonnay in the glorious Somerset countryside. But according to an article yesterday in my favorite paper, “The Guardian,” it should have tasted more like cat pee. Apparently, this weekend is a time of ‘root’ where wines will taste at their worst because they are best drunk only on fruit and flower days. This is the wacky belief of “biodynamics,” where produce is thought to taste better on days according to their position in the astrological calender. Wine tastes better on fruit and flower days and I presume vodka (made from potatoes) tastes better on root days.

According to the proponents of this crazy idea, wine is a living organism and therefore like other living organisms, it is subject to the effects of the lunar cycle. Oh dear… naïve biology, belief in astrology and sympathetic magical reasoning again (and a basic misunderstanding of what wine is!). Still, the wine buyers for both Tesco’s and Marks & Spencer’s apparently believe it, as they only invite critics to taste their wines on fruit and flower days. What’s more is that the Guardian tested the theory for their article and found that five out of seven bottles showed a marked improvement!

Now this is the newspaper that features Ben Goldacre, the skilled critic and scourge of bad science. Ben… you need to have a word with your fellow journalist and tell him about how to design a proper scientific study.


Filed under In the News, supernatural

Church Condemns Reiki & New Age Movement

I am sitting in my hotel room in Denver at 4am in the morning awaiting to make several appearances on Colorado TV and radio. This gives me an opportunity to bring to your attention several articles I discovered on my cross-atlantic journey that I think you should know about. The first was a short piece in yesterday’s “Guardian” entitled, “Catholic bishops in US ban Japanese reiki.” Guidelines issued by the US Catholic Church warn of the dangers of reiki, the Japanese New Age therapy that seeks to improve health through channeling energy. Reiki translates as ‘universal life energy’ and as many of you know is gaining popularity in today’s New Age culture. The church dismiss it because it “lacks scientific credibility” and could expose patients to “malevolent forces.” Talk about the kettle calling the pot black. One Christian reiki expert said that the church has misunderstood the channeling of energy to mean spirits. It’s all the SuperSense at work to me.  I looked into this further and found a really interesting Pontifical report on the New Age movement that made me realize that the church is worried about the switch in spiritual allegiance that appears to be taking place in Western culture. Far from assuming that Christians can entertain a variety of belief systems, the Vatican is concerned at the prospect of the erosion of Christianity by New Age beliefs and practices.

Here’s something I did not know ( and a good reason to keep reading rather than ignoring beliefs if you are a skeptic like me). Do you know why it is called the “New Age?” This is because the two thousand years period after Christ is known as the age of Aries by astrologers and as it draws to a close, we have the new Age of Aquarius. I remember the hippie song about “this is the dawning of the new age of Aquarius,” but I did not understand the reference. So the church has a good historical reason to fear the times are a changing. Ironically, that fear is based on astrology, another belief system the Vatican tried to condemn. I think that the current tension that many of us see between the religious and the atheist is misplaced. I think the real turf wars are going to take place within the spiritual realm as each group struggles to fight for or retain popularity. Again how ironic that natural selection will probably shape the face of the spiritual landscape of the future. In my opinion, one thing is for certain. That landscape will always have the SuperSense as I think it is the natural disposition of humans to believe in the unbelievable.


Filed under atheism, In the News

Did Charles Take Another Tinkle Before Blast-Off?

charlesBillionaire software magnate, Charles Simonyi, took his second flight into space yesterday on a $35m trip to the International Space Station. He is likely to be the last space tourist for a while as they plan to increase the capacity of the space station and will not have enough room for paying passengers. One has to admire the man or any person for that matter that has the balls to blast off into space. I know I would wet myself….. 

Maybe that’s the origin of the Russian superstitious behaviour of urinating on the back wheels of the transport bus that takes them to launch pad. He did this on his last space trip, and knowing the nature of superstitious behavior, it is unlikely that he and his fellow cosmonauts would have not relieved themselves again for luck. So well done Charles. And well done for your support of the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Engagement of Science recently vacated by Richard Dawkins.


Filed under In the News

A Master’s Degree In….. Creationism

noahs_ark_photo6Well, those of us in higher science education have long known that standards have been slipping for some time but this latest move from the creationists takes this beyond belief. Actually beyond belief and well into faith.

Texas State Representative Leo Berman has proposed House Bill 2800, which would exempt any private non-profit institution that requires students to complete “substantive course work” from having to acquire a certificate of authority from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). 

What does that mean? Well that any institution can offer higher degrees. Apparently he has the Institute of Creation Research Graduate School in mind who have been trying to get certification in Texas for two years. These are the so-called “Young Earth” creationists who take the Old Testament literally and believe the Earth is no older than 10,000 years. These are the über creationists not to be confused by the intelligent design bunch.

When Michael Shermer and I visited Anthony Bush as his Noah’s Ark Zoo, Anthony was quick to dismiss these Young Earth creationists as “American loonies.” Which was kinda of cute coming from someone who had dedicated his life to teaching intelligent design. And once these young earthers get their MSc degree, it will become increasingly harder to distinguish the scientists from the believers.


Filed under atheism, In the News

Scottish UFO Confirmed

ufoI am just working my way through Jon Ronson’s book, “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” which is all about the wacky side of the US military who invested millions of dollars into SuperSense soldiers. The ‘First Earth Battalion’ were hand-picked soldiers selected for their psychic abilities to remote view enemy installations and kill at a distance simply by staring. They practiced this lethal gaze on goats. Would you believe that this has been made into a major movie staring George Clooney, Kevin Spacey & Ewan McGregor no less and is due for release this year.

In ‘SuperSense’ I talk about the origins of the belief in the power gaze and argue that even the most powerful members of our societies including the politicians and military rulers are inclined to believe in the daft, including UFOs. As I said before, UFO’s are not supernatural, just really unlikely. We learn today that the UK’s Ministry of Defense took seriously a photograph of a UFO hovering next to an  RAF jet near Pitlochry, Scotland in 1990. The title of the article is alarmist, “MoD Took UFO Sighting Seriously.” Actually, when you read the piece this title is misleading as it turns out that they were not interested in the slightest about the prospect of aliens. They were more worried by the hype of media.  If it had happened in the US who knows, what might have happened with this story?

I expect the conspiracy theorists will get to work shortly arguing that another critical piece of evidence for UFOs has yet again been suppressed.

UPDATE: You might like to read my other blog at 5TM


Filed under In the News

German Blood Sausage

Two German Air Force sergeants are currently facing a court martial for preparing sausages made from their own blood based on one of their grandmother’s old recipes. According to the report, they had plans to develop a line of blood sausages using friends and comrades. Apparently the scheme only came to light when a fellow soldier questioned whether donating blood for sausage making was part of their duties.

Having been to Munich and Leipzig I can attest that Germans really enjoy their meat. At one evening dinner as part of a protracted job interview, the hosts took great delight in feeding me bollocks and I am not talking about the nature of the job requirements and duties I would be expected to undertake. No, Germans love to eat meat and are also partial to the occasional sweet

Armin Meiwes

Armin Meiwes

pork. In SuperSense, I talk about Armin Meiwes, the Rotenburg cannibal, whocannibalvicr_468x501 killed and ate Bernd Brandes. What’s so disturbing about this case is that Bernd was a willing victim but read the book for the more unbelievable aspects.

Human blood sausages and cannibalism smack of vital essentialism and if you find it going on in the elite of the German Air Force, then frankly what hope have we for eradicating such medieval beliefs?


Filed under Essentialism, Weird Story of the Week

How the Hell Did They Do That?

I am just back from my Cambridge conference and learned many amazing things from some incredible minds. But it was this demonstration shown by philosopher Simon Blackburn as an example of seeing is not believing that left me astounded.

It will take me a few days to get back into the swing of things as I am knackered but fear not, I will start über-blogging again shortly. And yes,… I did get “saucy codpiece” into my opening introduction to the meeting.


Filed under General Thoughts