Monthly Archives: May 2010

"A Penny for Your Thoughts"


In 1966, a year after the Rhine Research Center [more commonly known as the Institute for Parapsychology] decamped from the East Duke campus [and curriculum] to a semi-spooky-looking house across Buchanan Street in town, I paid a visit and had my psi [telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis] tested. Guess how I did? [Feeble parapsychological joke.] Tell you later.

Incidentally, the first citation for the penny-for-your-thoughts idiom was in Sir Thomas More’s book, Four Last Things. [He, who naively believed that “you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking”; yet he not only went to the Tower, but lost his head, for what Henry VIII thought More was thinking.]

Mind reading is not the exclusive domain of professional psychics, ya know [or do ya know?]. Except for the truly solipsistic [and/or autistic], all of us behave as if we had “the second sight.” We blithely attribute thoughts and motives to others, quite often accurately, on the basis of subtle [or even subliminal] cues. That’s why when a 20th Century psi subject had to pick which card the examiner was holding [square, star, circle, cross, or squiggle], the two people had to be in separate rooms. [Now, it’s ever-so-much-more high-tech, don’t ya know.] My own low-tech “research” suggests that the ability to “receive” such “messages” diminishes with age. To while away long car trips with my kids and their various friends, I made up a game called “Gypsy,” using an ordinary deck of cards, thoroughly shuffled. Each girl in turn had to guess whether the next card would be red or black; and if she was right, she collected the card. The one with the most cards at the end of the game was the “Gypsy.” It was always the youngest kid in the car. “Ooh!” the others would predict, “You’re going to clean up at the Windsor Casino!” This was back in Detroit, in the early ’90s.

Speaking of which, back in the day, on the crosstown drive from our house to our horse’s house, we would pass Madame Rosa’s Psychic Parlor, with a neon sign saying “Call [a telephone number] for an appointment.” My already skeptical older daughter would quibble, “Why would you have to call? Wouldn’t she just know when you were coming in?”

For most of us, success at mind-reading is a sometime thing. But, as casino operators know, nothing is more compelling than Intermittent Reinforcement. One wonders how often the punter’s Beginner’s Luck at a game of chance is contrived by the “house.” One even might wonder how many of my fellow subjects were found to have “significantly high psi,” as I was. Bet you already guessed that, eh?

Almost 40 years of trying to “guess what’s on the mind” of my clients has convinced me that I do not have “significantly high psi” [anymore, one might say]. What I do have is a Miss-Marple-like tendency to pick up on subtle [even subliminal] cues, from which I try to “get a clue” as to “what the deal is.” In my line of work, the chilling motto is “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Talk about fear of the unknown…you don’t know the half of it.

Next time, telepathic communication with animals.

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Filed under attribution theory, murky research

"Keep a Civil Tongue in Your Head!"


Did you hear about the [latest] set-to between the Australian actor Russell Crowe and a member of the media [Mark Lawson of BBC 4]? There’s an audio clip, if you’re interested, with expletives prissily deleted. During an interview @ the Cannes Film Festival, the mercurial actor took great umbrage at Lawson’s [repeated] observation that he heard “a hint of an Irish accent” in Crowe’s Robin Hood, and ultimately walked out, in medias res. Apart from mild [Poetic] sarcasm, when Lawson asked him if the accent had been “more northern English,” [to which Crowe retorted, “No. I was going for an Italian, yeah. Missed it? F@#k me. Anyway…”], he used the Referential speech function. Nothing went airborne except a few Emotive phrases. Wolf held in check, compared to past form.

More to the point, what do we think got up Crowe’s nose, about the attribution that he sounded slightly Irish? Humiliation of some sort, one gathers. His bio says he spent his youth pinging between New Zealand & Oz; and that apart from one indigenous ancestor, his heritage is [like most Anglo-Antipodeans] Welsh, Scottish, English and (ahem) Irish. Much was made of the film’s efforts to be more historically accurate than previous versions, and a dialect coach was mentioned. Was there an implied slur on that person’s accuracy or efficacy? Or on Crowe’s capacity for mimicry? Or was the presenter insinuating that the actor was playing Robin Hood as a crypto-Fenian [out to overthrow the English monarchy]? I’d go see that film, now.

“Anyway…” [to quote Crowe], here’s the point of this post. Which would you prefer: to be told something offensive, or to be told a lie? The Indigenous American expression for the latter, is [for a European incomer] “to speak with forked tongue.” After several incidents in which East Coast tribes of Indians were schmized into “peace talks” with colonists, only to be massacred, they came to fear them, having before only resented their intrusion.

For my part, as much as it angers [humiliates] me to “get panned by the critics,” it is far more infuriating [as in, frightening] to be deceived. When a dog is barking at you, or a horse is pinning its ears, you know just where you stand with them [if possible, out of strike range, until their limbic system has chilled]. When poor old Russell was being interviewed by a presenter “notorious for being oleaginous and obsequious,” how could he tell if the guy loved the movie or hated it? Especially if, rather than just giving him a thumbs up or down, Lawson made himself obscure, with a forked-tongued, passive-aggressive. a propos of nothing “question” about “a hint of Irish.” Like Lili would have, Crowe rose to the bait and barked. But he didn’t bite. He chose to disengage, to leave the field; but as he departed he was still trying to clarify whether Lawson had intentionally dissed him or not: “I don’t get the Irish thing, by the way,” he murmured, as he left the room. Now, that was civil enough, wasn’t it?

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, lesser of two evils, limbic system

"What Was I Thinking?"


My currently fave BBC 1 radio presenter, the young-but-sage Dubliner Annie Mac, was hosting a Bank Holiday Weekend show, reading texts from listeners recounting their shenanigans. “Annie, I woke up in a wheelie bin [trash can on wheels] this morning,” wrote one reveler. Annie deadpanned this response: “Now, what made you think that was a good idea? Surely, you would have been more comfortable, lying face-down on the lawn. Ah, well, you’ve survived it; and now it’s an anecdote.”

Brilliant! Here’s why I love what she’s done there. Without appearing to be goody-two-shoes preach-y about the perils of demon drink, she has deftly imputed internal locus of control to the texter-in. Rather than focusing on how he came to be so “trashed” that [presumably] his so-called friends decided to “bin” him, she [Poetically] implies that the decision to pass the night in a garbage can was his; and questions the wisdom of that. Under the rubric of “If you can’t be good, be careful,” she points out that he could have lessened his pain & suffering by stretching out, in the recommended Recovery Position, on some soft grass. [Coincidentally, last week the Manchester Guardian ran a feature on 10 common, potentially lethal, misconceptions about rendering first aid; and one was to “lay a drunk person on his/her back.” Several show-biz fatalities were cited, as evidence that this is a Bad Idea.]

By implication, she suggests that the reveler might now be having a bit of retroactive fear [as in, “Bloody hell! I could have died from that!”] and humiliation [as in “Bloody hell! I just told an audience of millions how stupid I am!”]; but she reframes his shenanigans as a Lucky Escape: an event not to be repressed or dissociated [as in, “That was not me, I’m not like that.”], but to be told and retold, until the ostensibly Crazy Fox’s behavior is understood well enough to answer the question: “What was I thinking?”

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Filed under crazy like a fox, locus of control, understanding shenanigans

Rx: "Waldspaziergang" (A Walk in the Woods)


Another case of Pseudo-scientific Over-reach, brought to you by the BBC this week: “‘Green’ exercise quickly ‘boosts mental health.'” This, (loosely) based on a paper by Jo Barton & Jules Pretty of the University of Essex [published in Environmental Science & Technology, under the catchy title, “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis”]. The authors did a statistical meta-analysis of 10 completely unrelated studies involving people of various ages engaging in various outdoor activities, and answering questionnaires purporting to measure changes in their self-esteem and mood, at the intervals of 5 minutes into the exercise, 10 to 60 minutes, “half a day,” and/or “a whole day.”

The groups studied ranged in age from “youths” to ” the elderly.” The activities they engaged in ranged from walking [apparently, not part of all 10 studies] to cycling, horse-riding, fishing, sailing, gardening, and “farming activities.” All the studies took place near Essex in England, at some time over the past 6 years; and the 1252 participants were “self-selecting using an opportunistic sampling method.” [I think that means, these were the ones who completed their questionnaires.]

Before we get to the “data,” let’s ponder how on earth one “completes” 2 questionnaires after 5 minutes of horse-riding. Is it like the Kentucky Derby, where a lady with a wireless microphone rides up beside you and interviews you? Is there a staggered start to the pony trek, so she can interview each participant exactly at their 5-minute mark? Wouldn’t it take longer than 5 minutes per participant, to ask & answer the 20 questions? How about the cyclists? Is it like the Tour de France, with an interviewer in a chase car? These intriguing logistical problems were not addressed in the “Materials and Methods” section of the paper.

Anyway, now for their “Results.” For both self-esteem and mood, the “greatest changes come from 5 minutes of activity, and thus suggest that these psychological measures are immediately increased by green exercise.” They go on to report that “the changes are lower for 10-60 min and half-day, but rise again after a whole day duration.” Looking at the many data charts in the article, unless the same chipper 5-min subjects bum out @ the 10-60 min and half-day point, and then perk up a bit after the whole day, it appears that each participant was assessed at only one point. There’s a clue in the “Discussion” section: “Whole-day activities are likely to be qualitatively different activities, involving in some cases camping overnight and in others significant conservation achievements.”

Hmm, wouldn’t it be useful to know just which Green Activities yielded “The 5-minute Fix”? I’m thinking, unless you’re a professional jockey, not horse-riding. Not fishing, either. Nor, indeed, sailing. I’m thinking, probably walking. So, why not try that first? Take yourself [and any handy companion, 2- or 4-footed] on a little walk among the trees, and just see if it doesn’t “boost [your] mental health.” That’s what the Austrians were doing to lift their spirits, decades before Freud had them lying on his couch: Waldspaziergang in the Vienna Woods. [I hear a waltz…]

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Filed under confounds, murky research