Tag Archives: intuition

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

The Religious Ecstasy of Pain

imagesThe idea of looking at images of the Virgin Mary while administering electric shocks to the devout just seems too much like some form of modern flagellation or at least Orwellian conditioning experiment. I did not think that sort of experiment got ethical approval these days. I have enough trouble with my own board just on the wording of some stupid consent form that most people don’t understand anyway.  

Yet Oxbridge researchers have reported a study showing that practicing Catholics can tolerate more pain induced by electric shock when they look at portraits of Jesus’s mum compared to a control picture. Non-religious individuals did not show any modulated pain tolerance when looking at the two images. 

religious-imagesJust in case you didn’t know, the one of the left is the Virgin Mary.

Brain imaging also revealed increased activation of the prefrontal regions of the brain which controls and suppresses emotional responses, leading to the very outrageous claim in the report that pain should not be viewed so negatively but has positive association for Catholics. Well there’s a surprise. Talk about a loaded research agenda.

Pass me the spikey belt. I feel the need to give myself a damn good thrashing.


Filed under Research

Psychic Predicted Heath Ledger’s Death & Success at Oscars

166Nikki – psychic to the stars not only predicted the untimely death of Heath Ledger but also his nomination for an Oscar at tonight’s ceremony. Nikki has made over 150 predictions for 2009 and has conveniently published these on her blog at the Divine Woman site under various headings. Here is a list of the top 5 predictions in each category.

Star Predictions

Lots of splits in Hollywoodheathjoker

  1. The great late actor Heath Ledger will be nominated for an Oscar.
  2. Mickey Rourke will be nominated for an Oscar.
  3. Angelina Jolie will be nominated for an Oscar.
  4. Anne Hathaway will be nominated for an Oscar.
  5. Johnny Depp winning an Oscar for playing a Russian in a future movie within 36 months.

The Royals

  1. Sex scandal in British Parliament.
  2. Duke of Edinborough has to watch his health.
  3. A wedding in Monaco.
  4. A yacht on fire in Monaco.
  5. A tragedy around Princess Caroline.

Sports Predictions

  1. The Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup within 36 months.
  2. A new Canadian Hockey League.
  3. A blimp explosion over a sports stadium.
  4. A Formula One car out of control – a fiery crash hitting the stands and killing the driver.
  5. A long distant swimmer will swim the English Channel.

Fashion Predictions

  1. Mustaches for men – very Clark Gable, Burt Reynolds.
  2. Black for men (think Johnny Cash).
  3. Thin ties like the 50’s and 60’s.
  4. Suspenders will be back.
  5. Capes for men.

Women – A Lot of Glamour

    1. Business attire – mixed with glamorous accessories.
    2. 40’s compacts.
    3. 40’s accessories.
    4. Silver and grey.
    5. High shoes and boots.

World Predictions

  1. Death of Charles Manson.
  2. Danger around the Dahlia Lama.
  3. Trouble with Tibet and China.
  4. An explosion at the Great Wall of China.
  5. Passing of Fidel Castro.

Death and Health Watch

Annette Funicello, Hillary Clinton, Doris Day, Willie Nelson, Pamela Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Ted Kennedy, Unice Schniver, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, President Masharoff, Billy Graham, Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, Barak Obama, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nelson Mandela, Farah Fawcett, Nancy Reagan, Patrick Swayze, Dick Cheney, Dick Clark, George Bush Sr., Barbara Bush, Elizabeth Taylor, Larry King, Mick Jagger, Arnold Swarzenagger, Kirk Douglas, Hugh Hefner, Shirley Temple Black, Alex Trebek, French President Sarkozy, Queen Elizabeth, The Duke of Edinborough, Prime Minister Brown of England, Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, Bob Barker, Burt Reynolds, Karl Lagerfield, David Copperfield, Jackie Stallone, Chris Angel (Mind Freak), Jimmy Carter, Keith Richard, David Blaine, Lauren Bacall, Joanne Woodward, Marilyn Manson, Michael Jackson, Sean Penn, Madonna, and Axle Rose of Guns’n Roses.

Some of these health watches are dead certs.  Amy Winehouse  is the epitome of a health scare and frankly everyone is still surprised to see Keith Richards is still around. Don’t hundreds of people swim the English Channel every year anyway? What would Hollywood be without lots of celebrity couples splitting and British Parliament is synonymous with sex scandals.

Still, there are some specific predictions worth keeping an eye out for. 

But win Heath win an Oscar for best supporting actor? If he does, then this will go to his 3-yr-old daughter, Matilda. 

I am not psychic but I predict that Hollywood will not pass on an opportunity like this.


Filed under supernatural

Let’s Face It

Last week, a Cleveland Clinic announced that the first US face transplant patient had been discharged. Her identity and the circumstances surrounding her loss of face have been kept a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons, unlike Isabelle Dinoire, the French lady, whose face was partially chewed off by her dog, was mawkishly paraded in front of the world’s media.

What does it mean to have a face transplant? Unlike other transplantation procedures, the face transplant is not necessary to prolong life but rather it allows those who are hideously disfigured  to re-enter a society. 

But what of wearing someone else’s face? What are the psychological implications? We have just had an academic paper accepted for publication which examines our essentialist anxieties concerning organ transplantation from another individual. In a hypothetical situation, we asked adults to rate how happy they were to receive organ transplant from others after learning about their moral background. We are much happier to accept an organ donation from someone who has led a morally upright life but much more adverse to receiving a life-saving organ transplant from a murderer. It’s a massive effect.

Fairly obvious and all hypothetical you might argue, but in 1999, a fifteen-year-old girl with terminal heart disease was forcibly given a heart transplant because she refused to agree to the life-saving operation because she thought she would lose her own identity. Psychological essentialism is not just an abstract academic pursuit of mine. It has tangible consequences for the way we reason about decisions regarding the assimilation of other people’s bodily tissue. For example, it not only influences the way we regard organ transplantation but also whether we are willing to give consent for the donation of organs from loved ones. After all, many relatives believe that their deceased loved one lives on in the new body.

A face transplant must be the most difficult challenge to the sense of one’s own identity. Good luck to the poor women.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Animal Essence

A number of commentators have asked what I mean by essences and essentialism. Basically, the idea is that we naturally assume that there is a true identity of something that exists independently of its outward appearance.

images-1For example, imagine that you had a raccoon and that you had the technology to change its images2appearance so that it now looked like a skunk (change the color of its skin, paint a white line down the back, add a bag of smelly stuff and so on). If I asked you whether it was a raccoon or a skunk then you would say that it is still a raccoon. You might explain that in terms of DNA and you’d be right. But before DNA was known, you would have given the same answer. Young children who do not know about DNA also say that animals are essentially the same despite outward appearances because they are  basing their answer on intuitive essentialism. Susan Gelman and Frank Keil are some of the leading researchers in this area.

pigletslionsI have taken this idea further by arguing that essentialism could be the basis for some supernatural beliefs. The idea that someone’s essence could contaminate the physical world is a recurring theme in many of the postings that I have put up on this blog.


Filed under Essentialism, Research

Science Minister Has “Sixth Sense”

How did I miss this one????? 

The Government’s new science minister Lord Drayson claims to have a ‘sixth sense’ to predict the future and cites Malcolm Gladwell’s popular bestseller, “Blink” as a fascinating book that confirms his belief that humans have involved an intuitive supernatural ability.

Ka…thunk! The sound of a million jaws hitting the ground! 

Oh well… guess he will appreciate “SuperSense.” I’ll get my publisher to send him a copy.

Thanks to Andrew Kelly from the Festival of Ideas for pointing this one out to me.

Now that’s two posts on the same day… time to take a break


Filed under In the News, Newspaper

Ice Queen

Just about every song I can think about that deals with isolation and rejection has lyrics that describe how cold that feeling is. Cue 1970’s megaband Foreigner….”You’re as cold as ice. You’re willing to sacrifice our love….” 

Yeah I hate that song as well. But the metaphor of rejection and temperature crops up again and again in culture. Cold shoulder, icy stare, frosty reception etc.. etc..

Now Cheng-Bo Zeng and colleagues have demonstrated experimentally in a forthcoming publication in Psychological Science that individuals who are asked to recall previous episodes when they were socially rejected, judge the room temperature to be on average 6 degrees colder than individuals asked to remember some socially inclusive event.

Then they induced social exclusion in a virtual interactive game on a computer and found that participants reported a greater desirability for warm food and drinks.

This area of research is know as embodied cognition where thought processes have tangible and predictable consequences on bodily responses and perception. In this case, being rejected is a cold experience.

Cool eh?


Filed under Research

Blind Judo, Worship and Smiling Babies

Although the Beijing Olympics have now come to an end, less able-bodied athletes can be seen competing in the Paralympics that begin on Sept 6th. Regrettably, these games attract only a fraction of the audience, which is a sad indictment on our viewing preferences for the perfect body. However, my interest will be drawn to these games following a recent study of congenitally blind athletes.

Researchers published an analysis of postures adopted by winning and losing blind  Judo finalists at the last Paralympics in 2004 in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They discovered that winning athletes raised both arms in a victory salute despite being blind from birth and having never seen this gesture. One possibility is that this may be a universal behavior, hard-wired into humans and possibly some primates. Looking at these images I was reminded of religious believers and rock audiences who universally seem to raise their arms skyward at moments of worship . I wonder if that is similarly true for those blind from birth.

Smiling on the other hand is uniquely human. A similar facial gesture in primates is indicative of a threat grimace where the bared teeth are used to signal a warning. Smiling is also hard-wired into humans as there are now classic studies of congenitally blind babies who smile around about the same time that this social behavior emerges in sighted infants at around 2-3 months. Although eager parents (and more often grandparents) often report smiling in newborns it truly takes off in a big way after a couple of months.

Here’s the interesting thing. Blind babies may begin smiling at roughly the same time as sighted babies but this behavior can drop out unless parents or caregivers respond to such signals in a contingent way. So the biological propensity for this particular behavior requires the environmental input for maintenance.

Isn’t this universal behavior curious? I wonder what other propensities have been wired into us, just waiting for the right environment to express them?


Filed under In the News, Research

Dawkins on Darwin – Does Richard Have a SuperSense?

I am enjoying Richard Dawkins’ latest TV series, “The Genius of Charles Darwin” currently broadcast on UK’s Channel 4. I am sure it will rally the atheists and rile the religious.

images1Not only is Dawkins celebrating the brilliance of Darwin and the power and elegance of Natural Selection to explain the origins of species, he looks like he is using the series as a platform to batter the believers again. Good luck to him. They are not easily dissuaded by argument or evidence.

However, there was one moment in Monday’s episode that I simply had to comment on. Dawkins went to London’s Natural History Museum that still house some of the original specimens documented and labelled by Darwin.

As he sat down to examine the collection, Dawkin’s said, “”This is a very weird feeling… these are Darwins original specimens!” 

He then picked up one pigeon and described how it differed from another.

“This one has been re-labelled but this one has been written in Darwin’s original hand”

At that point Dawkins held up the label to the camera in a lingering shot that I suppose the producers wanted to evoke a moment of awe and reverence.

One thing is clear. Dawkins is a passionate man and clearly has conviction in his advocacy of atheism and rejection of supernaturalism. But I wonder if he, like many others, feels an emotional connection to others through the objects they once handled in the same way the religious covet a relic?

I hope he does. It would make him seem more human to many.

Thanks Alice for bringing this to my attention.


Filed under Essentialism, Television