Tag Archives: dualism

Zombie Outbreak In USA!

The living dead are a recurrent feature of many supernatural belief systems and can be found in just about every culture and as far back as history can be traced. For example, early Egyptian religion was characterized by obsession with the afterlife. The origins of such universal beliefs are arguably a feature of the way that young children reason about death. The concept of death is one that children struggle to understand and this may explain why various studies have shown that toddlers are inclined to afterlife beliefs. For example, my colleague Jesse Bering studied this in a 2004 study where  he told kindergarten children about a mouse that had been killed and eaten by an alligator.  The children agreed that the mouse was dead, but they thought the mind was still active. Such dualism of body and mind allows for the afterlife in the form of ghosts and spirits.

In contrast, zombies are the earth-bound animated bodies of the dead. In SuperSense, I discuss another universal belief in the rejuvenating powers of consuming flesh and the body of others. Not only is this evident in certain religious rituals but certain secular practices of absorbing the vitality of others is not uncommon in today’s society. Zombies apparently need to eat brains to keep, ‘staying alive.’ Such beliefs makes for great cultural horror stories, of which vampires are probably the most popular. 

zombies640_480Of course, we scientists, could be wrong. The living dead or zombies may really exist and we need to be observant. Thankfully, there are people out there willing and prepared to defend us from zombie attacks. Last week, motorists were alerted to an outbreak of zombies on the motorway. The motorway signs warned drivers of zombies ahead thereby averting a disaster. Without the quick wits of such people we may be caught off guard by the legions of the undead.

And what about our leaders? Are they prepared to protect us from the undead? I know that everyone thinks that President Obama is much better than the last guy but at least Bush recognized the problem of zombie attacks.


Filed under supernatural, Weird Story of the Week

Descartes’s Skull Sent Back to School

descartesHow sweet the irony of it! A row has broken out about recent plans to transfer the skull of René Descartes back to his school in France. The irony of the story is that Descartes was a dualist. He proposed that the mind and the body were two separate things.

In his treatise of the subject, Meditations, Descartes wrote, “I have found by experience that the senses sometimes deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those that have deceived us even once.” He went on to argue that even statements such as, “I am sitting here by the fire,” may be false since one could be dreaming or hallucinating. In short, the only certainty of existence one could logically hold to be true was that being consciously aware of one’s own thinking was proof of existence. Hence his now famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I am thinking, therefore I am”). For Descartes, the mind and the body where two separate entities.

I am not a dualist. I believe the mind is a product of the body or more specifically, the brain. To paraphrase Minsky and Pinker, “The mind is what the brain does.” So I find this story about fighting over the ownership of Descartes’s skull really quite amusing, as Descartes would have quite happily dispensed with his earthly remains. Not to mention the fact that the rest of Descartes’s skeleton lies in the Parisian Church of Saint Germain des Près and no one is certain that the skull really belongs to the great philosopher. 


Filed under Weird Story of the Week


During the 19th century, feeling heads became quite a parlour game (next to opium and sniffing nitroustock_0171s oxide). Francis Galton had pioneered the pseudoscience of phrenology whereby personality traits could be determined by the relative size of bumps and protrusions on the head. The idea was that mental faculties were localized in the brain and those faculties that were especially active would produce a protuberance of the skull. Hence feeling for bumps.

I actually have a massive one. It’s called an inion and is located at the back of my skull known as the occipital bone. Do I have really good vision (the corresponding brain region directly below is the primary visual processing area)? Of course not, the logic of phrenonlogy is daft as a brush. I do however, like to hear the squeals when I allow unsuspecting people to feel it. Apparently the bone growth is a genetic legacy of Nordic origin (I always knew there was a bit of Viking in me!).

All this brings me onto neophrenology. I have always been deeply sceptical of the recent fad for brain imaging in cognitive neuroscience because,

1) I seriously doubt that mental functions over and beyond motor and sensory functions are conveniently localized in a brain region

2) investigators tend to find localization where they are looking for it

3) the beautiful brain images published in the papers are a con – the output from these techniques is statistical activation and these are simply overlaid on structural brain scans to make it look as if you can seen the mind at work!

4) it’s a damned expensive technique that has been sucking up huge amounts of research grant money

5) the majority of people doing the research don’t have a clue about cognitive science and why imaging is only a tool.

images As you can see, I am not a great fan of brain imaging of mental functions –  I think  much of it is phrenology.

 So I am pleased to announce that we have just been awarded a grant from the Bial  Foundation to undertake an fMRI study of supernatural thinking at the Cardiff  University Brain Research Imaging Centre. Of course, this is not the first time that people have scanned brains during supernatural thought processes. The public got extremely excited when researchers found a “God spot” in the brain of nuns and people meditating. But really what did they expect to find. We all know thoughts go on in the brain and not your big toe! Anyway our studies are going to address one of the key predictions of SuperSense. Namely intuitive reasoning leads to supernatural beliefs that we try to suppress and this will be particularly obvious in certain individuals. It should show up as a predictable pattern of co-activation in a number of brain regions.

Anyway, I always knew that Galton guy was on to something. Ask me again in a years time when the first analyses should be complete.


Filed under Research

Cellular Memories and Bad Blood

I am taking part in a radio interview for BBC Southern Counties Radio’s Brighton breakfast show hosted by Gordon Astley on Sept 10th at around 10am (assuming the world does not come to an end when they switch on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland).

They want a scientific opinion on the reports from transplant patients who think that they have taken on personality characteristics from the donor following the operation. On the show will be Ian and Lynda Gammons who I interviewed for my book. In 2005, Ian had kidney failure and by chance, his wife, Lynda was found to be a compatible match for organ transplantation. About 6 months after the operation, Ian started to notice a change in his attitudes towards shopping, cooking and working in the garden. All the activities his wife enjoyed but that he could not abide. However, one day during a shopping trip with Lynda he suddenly exclaimed that he was really enjoying himself. Since then Ian has taken up his wife’s interests with enthusiasm. He reports that they have a telepathic connection and even share dreams.

Around 1 in 3 transplant patients believe that they have taken on characteristics of the organ’s donor or at least think that they have changed personality in some significant way. Interestingly, such reports are more common among those that have received an organ from a deceased rather than living donor such as in the case of the Gammons.

The first widely publicized report of such organ memory was the former dancer Claire Sylvia who received the heart and lungs from a young man. Following the transplant she developed a taste for beer, chicken nuggets and an attraction to short blond women. The donor’s girlfriend had been short and blond. He liked beer and chicken McNuggets were found in his coat pocket at the scene of the fatal road traffic accident.

How are we to understand such common reports? One pseudoscience theory is that of cellular memory whereby tissue and organs store information about the individual that can then integrate with the host if transplanted. However, psychological states such preferences and memories are encoded in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus and these brain areas cannot be transplanted. Nor is there any reputable evidence for storage of mental states outside of brain tissue. Organs are indeed connected to the brain via nerves but it is a totally different type of nerve system to that of the cortical neuronal networks of the brain that generate the mind.

Rather, I think that a more likely explanation is the longstanding supersense belief that others have an essence of identity that can be incorporated by contact. Certainly this is what Swedish researcher Margareta Sanner has found in her interviews with patients and the general public. Not only do we believe we can absorb the vitality of others by intimate connection, we also believe we can absorb some by their memories and personality. And what could be more intimate that sharing a physical connection with another through the incorporation of part of their body into our own.

This is why one of the greatest concerns for potential organ recipients is the loss of one’s own identity. In 1999, a 16-year-old girl dying from heart failure was forcibly given a heart transplant because she had refused the life-saving operation. She was so concerned that she would lose her identity with some else’s heart insider her, that she preferred certain death.

It does not have to be an organ. My grad student Arno just translated this article from a Dutch paper that reports a recent situation where a Serb was holidaying in Croatia and learned that the country was suffering from a severe lack of blood donated for operation. Having donated blood for years the man turned up at the hospital and offered to make a donation. This was gratefully accepted until they discovered that he was a Serb. When asked why he was turned away, the hospital explained that patients would not accept a transfusion of Serbian blood. It was bad blood.

This reminds me of a number of recent scandals in the US and UK where families where not happy about their loved one’s organs going to recipients from a different race. When a Newcastle Hospital accepted an organ donation on the condition it went only to a white recipient, UK legislation was enacted in 2000 to stop families dictating who should receive donations.

It is not only the recipients of organs who believe that they take on the personality of the donor, so do the relatives who think that the deceased lives on in a new body! No wonder the UK transplant coordination centre is not keen to discuss this problem as such beliefs could hamper their program to recruit more donors.

I am not sure how I would react to someone else’s organs inside me. On an intellectual level I know that organs are just component parts that serve a function but to be honest, I think I too would have to fight hard not to believe that I had part of someone else living on inside of me. It’s only natural.  


Filed under Essentialism, Radio, supernatural