Normal Activity

It’s Halloween time, so as one would expect, many ghostly happenings have been … happening.

A few nights ago I had a lovely date night with myself. I got some snacks and some wine, turned off all the lights except for a single candle, and sat down to watch a scary movie. I’d never seen The Changeling before, but it had a few rare moments of freaking the hell out of me with its simple but effective scares. It’s all the ghost story clichés done right.

Then today, at the Central Library, I went to see a talk by ghost researcher Cameron Bagg, who presented these same ghost clichés as fact. It was an interesting presentation; he told the story of how he first encountered ghosts (mysterious sounds, feeling a presence, teleporting objects, etc.), the tools he uses to hunt ghosts, some spooky anecdotes, all that. He showed some pictures of ghosts and spirit orbs. Ambiguous shadows and spheres of light.

At strange gatherings like this, I find the audience makeup and reactions as fascinating as the talk itself. This was a diverse group of people – old, young, crazy, not-crazy. Good old Roy McDonald was in attendance (he seems to be everywhere at once … like a ghost). And their reactions; well, I think this was the defining moment:

Bagg took out a television remote control. A regular remote, with an infrared transmitter on the end. He pointed it at the audience, clicked a button a few times, and said “does everyone see the flashing light?”

Many in the audience nodded. Murmurs of “ah, yes!” and “I see it!”

But there was no flashing light. His point was that cameras can see frequencies of light that are invisible to the naked eye (e.g., infrared; indeed, a flashing light could be seen when he pointed it through a camera). But there is a deeper point that inadvertently came out: when people are presented with a suggestion, they are likely to see things as consistent with that suggestion. When shown a static bulb and told it was flashing, many people in the audience, they literally thought they saw it flashing.

Similarly, when someone believes she is about to see ghost photographs, then you show her a shapeless shadow, she will see a human figure in it. Suggest that a dead woman lived in a house, and a picture of an empty room contains her face in a blob of reflected light. The noises at night aren’t the people in the next apartment bumping around, but ghostly rapping. An object appearing where it shouldn’t isn’t a lapse in memory, but a mischievous poltergeist.

I’m not saying ghosts aren’t real. Ghosts are an intense phenomenon genuinely experienced by a significant proportion of the population. These experiences can’t be explained by the speculations of armchair debunkers, and even though I wish he was more objective about it, I am glad that people like Cameron Bagg are out there actually trying to figure it out. But aside from any paranormal explanations, there is a lot of equally fascinating normal human psychology going on in the minds of those looking for ghosts.

Children of the Corn

There’s a commercial for bottled water on TV right now that shows kids frolicking in a swimming pool, and a voiceover goes something like: “your children don’t swim in high fructose corn syrup.”

The conclusion you’re supposed to draw, I guess, is that your kids shouldn’t eat foods with high fructose corn syrup, and should instead drink this particular brand of bottled water.

Here are some other things your children do not swim in:

  • Vegetables
  • Toothpaste
  • Looking both ways when crossing the road
  • Politeness

Yet, in my humble opinion, these should be included in every child’s life.

It’s such a dumb argument that I feel stupider just writing about it. But I’m sure there are millions of people out there who will see the ad and say, “oh golly, that there ad is right huh? My kids don’t swim in corn syrup! And I heard on them there news program that corn syrup is doggone toxic! Honey, can you go down to the store and get some bottl- DAMMIT BRANDON GET OFF THE FUCKING SHED!

Of course, the truth is that high fructose corn syrup is just like any other sugar and is only being used as a villainous contrast to sell a product you get for free out of taps in every modern home. Sorta the opposite of calling something “green.”

In conclusion, when I have kids, I will dunk them in high fructose corn syrup.

It’s Almost Like ESP, Day 2

Once again, I took part in Richard Wiseman’s fun but flawed Twitter remote viewing study. Here’s what I tweeted when he said he was at the location:

Here is what I drew (rotated to disingenuously enhance appearance of psychic ability):

And here is where Richard turned out to be:

Once again proving that I’m totally psychic. I’m probably remote-viewing you right now. Please stop doing that thing with your ear. It’s just gross.

Edit June 29: Results have been posted over at Richard Wiseman’s blog. As I expected, nothing really substantial there. It was more of a proof of concept than anything scientifically useful. Disappointing.

It’s Almost Like ESP

Popular psychologist Richard Wiseman is currently conducting a unique study that uses Twitter to gather research participants. He’s seeing if his Twitter followers can engage in remote viewing to detect where Richard is located (explanation here). So the idea is that Richard goes to a randomly chosen location, then asks people on Twitter to use their psychic powers to give any impressions about where he is, then later choose which of 5 locations they think he was at.

When he gave the go-ahead this morning, I was happy to participate.  Here’s what I tweeted to him:

“First thing that came to mind was a star shape (oops, thinking of Zener cards?). Railing. Concrete. A lamp post. Playground?”

I also acted like a real remote-viewer and scribbled a few drawings:

Then it came time to pick which location I thought he was at, out of these five:

Well look at that! My posts, railings, and concrete all over the place. But I thought the most striking resemblence was between my middle picture and his middle picture (C), so that’s the one I guessed.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t where he was. He was at D.  So if I am psychic, it’s only for my future experience, not for remote viewing a real location.

Wiseman’s experiment isn’t really unique except for the Twitter aspect. Similar studies have been done many times, and strangely, usually find above-chance results (i.e., people are able to guess where the remote person is more often than if they were guessing). It’s also full of holes and flaws in its methodology (so many that I hope the true purpose of the study is remaning hidden and this is all a cover story for a better study).  Still, it’s good to see psychic phenomena – which the majority of people in the world believe in with little question – getting some attention and new technology applied to it. I think both religious and scientific bigotry have kept good research from being done in this area, and I hope we can overcome silly taboos to engage in more of it.

Go follow Wiseman on Twitter to participate – it’s going for a few more days. Or see his blog for more details and results.

Secondhand Transmission from a Distant World

Everyone is an alien to someone.

I’m in my late 20s. To anyone under the age of 18 today, I’m from a world they have never been to, and never will. A world we call the 1980s. It was inhabited by creatures with big curly hair that listened to cheesy pop music and grazed on Pixy Stix and Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip (aka sand you can eat). I grew up there; I have vivid memories of the world around me and the formative first experiences I had in it. But anyone under 18, they can only dream of such things.

See, this isn’t even the packaging I remember, but it’s all I could find on the internet. That old Lik-M-Aid packaging, it’s lost to time; it only exists in my memory of that alien world (and maybe partially rotted in an old box in someone’s basement).

Space aliens are separated from us by distance; we are separated from other people by time. But really, time is just the distance between two things that happen in the same place.

Which, of course, means that anyone older than me is an alien too. If a little grey man stepped out of a flying saucer that carried him from a planet I could never visit, I’d be treating him like a sort of god, asking him every question I could think of. Maybe our own greying human elders should be treated with the same respect and reverence.

This isn’t limited to time. The subjective experience of any one person can’t, by definition, be experienced by other people. To anyone else, it’s an alien sensation that can only be indirectly and imperfectly expressed. But even second-hand transmissions from the alien landscape of another person’s mind should be fascinating. Indeed, it’s what makes conversation with someone new so great. It’s what gives mass expressions of one’s consciousness – art, music, poetry, writing, whatever – their magic. SETI is cool ‘n everything, but Earth’s own idiosyncratic aliens are just as fascinating.

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin

Before I begin, let me just say right off that I enjoyed reading this book a whole lot and I heartily recommend it. The following harsh criticism is partly because I care enough to wish it was just a bit better, and partly because its subject matter falls in my own general area of expertise (psychology), so I’m bound to be nitpicky.

This is Your Brain on Music explores the science behind music, drawing from the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to explore various facets of creating and listening to it. After reviewing some basic information about music and music theory (most of which was new to me), Levitin begins describing the science behind topics such as categorization of music, the role of emotion in music, and musical expertise.

My first beef with the book is in its accuracy. Vague hypotheses and tentative research findings are often presented as established fact. However, this is to be expected in any science book written for a popular audience (again, me being a nitpicky psychologist). But there are other little errors. Levitin briefly mentions that Canadian psychologist Glenn Schellenberg was an original member of the popular 80s band Martha and the Muffins. However, a bit of Googling reveals that Schellenberg seems to have only played a guest role on a later album of theirs.

This only caught my attention because I’m currently running a study that Schellenberg kindly provided some audio files for. And speaking of name dropping, Levitin devotes many words to telling us how many famous people he has chilled with. At one point, he suddenly goes from talking about the role of the cerebellum in music to an elaborate tale of how he attended conferences with all his scientist heroes and even met Watson and Crick. This autobiographical stuff is interesting enough, but it ruins the flow – the rhythm, if you will – of the scientific stuff when the two are discordantly mashed together.

This haphazard organization is also exemplified in the book’s final chapter. During a discussion of music’s primary role in human evolution that is finally starting to lead somewhere, Levitin suddenly jumps to a vague hypothesis about mirror neurons fueling cultural evolution, then jumps again to a rambling, repetitive paragraph that pretty much says “humans live in groups” 5 times in 5 slightly different ways, and then, the book ends. No real final thought; no paragraph even trying to tie the preceding chapters together, just a random stopping point when he ran out of facts and anecdotes to throw onto the page.

Did I mention I liked this book? While it may be a disorganized collection of facts about music, each fact is fascinating on its own and well worth reading about. We often fail to think very much about the music we listen to for hours each day, and This is Your Brain on music, while it could use improvement, is an eye opening exploration of the deeper layers of the magical human experience that is music.

Side note: In this post, I wondered about the underlying reason for certain musical conventions. For example, why do minor chords sounds sad? Is it arbitrary and cultural? Or is there a more concrete reason? This book answers some of those questions. Long story short, like usual, it’s both. The laws of physics are responsible for some combinations of sounds going well together, but arbitrary choices and conventions also play a large role. E.g., apparently not every culture thinks minor chords sound sad. Interesting stuff.