Season of missed and bellowed deadlines

Honestly. If time is relative it’s one of the nagging ones in the family that you try to ignore but they never seem to get off your case and constantly remind you that I haven’t done what I said I was going to do and just let me live my own bloody life, Mum… please. Oh.

Now it’s Autumn and the crisp air returns, the berries are fat, the apples ready, there’s a crunchiness to every step; if you’re romantic it’s the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. But for most of us there is something else in the Autumnal air – nothing mellow, you can almost feel its buzz and charge: it’s this sense of pressing urgency.

It’s the season of deadlines and to-do lists. Today really is the tomorrow you were worrying about yesterday. Everything suddenly seems to need to be done “before Christmas!” Like the world just might end then, and it would be devastating if the planet were to explode without the attic sorted out and the tax receipts done.

Even as he wrote his Ode to Autumn in 1819, Keats dreaded the season realising that he had run out of time to deliver his long poem Hyperion – that and not  exactly having the constitution for the cold weather to come. “I love deadlines,” said Douglas Adams, “I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”

Why is everybody in a rush right now? It’s like a hole is torn in the space time continuum as the first leaf hits the pavement. All of a sudden time accelerates and there is an unremitting sense of anxiety, hustle and haste in the air. Projects need completing, days are ‘drawing in’, people who haven’t returned dinner party invitations suddenly feel prompted to have you round. Everything has an imperative.

Maybe time just seems short compared to the laconic eternity of the summer holidays; winter never seems to leave as fast as it arrives. Einstein theorised that time was relative to gravity, and certainly the gravity of a situation alters our perception of it. I mean, how long a minute is entirely depends on which side of the toilet door you are. A clock is not just a small device used to wake up people who have no children, it’s a gauge of our emotional state that can whizz round, or drag interminably, depending on how we’re feeling.

Writing in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers from Trinity College Dublin, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities claim that: how fast time is perceived is down to a creature’s size. Dogs, for instance, process information at twice the rate of humans, which is why they’re not very interested in television. You’d think with Downton ‘s latest rehashed plots resembling their dinner they might show a woof of interest, but a dog’s visual system has a refresh rate much higher than that offered by TV, or film, screens so all they see is a flicker of lights. The smaller the creature, say the scientists, the more they perceive in a unit of time.

However, the empirical data I’ve gathered from selflessly subjecting myself to the process of aging (the things I do for my readers), goes further. Time is actually perceived with the heart. You judge the world and the speed of life against your internal beating clock. As the heart slows, the world appears to become faster. That’s the tragedy of ageing: what once seemed like a year is, later, barely a week. For older people who, like elephants, have slow hearts, the world is whizzing past, death hurtling towards them. Yet to the young, they are lumbering and slow moving and always have a train of cars trying to overtake them when they go for a drive on a Sunday.

Conversely, when your heart is beating faster, the world seems to slow down. A fly’s heart beats a hundred times a second and so it sees the fly-swat coming towards it in interminable slow motion. It has time to rub its legs, bend them, start flapping its wings, do a faultless vertical take-off and buzz off to some other morsel, to scrape and vomit on, before the swat comes near. All in less than a human heartbeat and imperceptibly fast to the eye.

So when the excited heart starts beating faster as it does during disasters, times of shock or the kind of sex which involves kitchen furniture, everything seems to grind in to slow motion. It seems to take forever to react to anything. Which means some of the best and worst things that happen in life, happen slowly.

But Autumn, however much you love it, always goes too quickly, and every year it will seem just a little bit shorter. I’d love to say, ‘Carpe diem, tempus fugit.’ But honestly I haven’t the time to learn Latin.

via Season of missed and bellowed deadlines – KensingtonChelseaToday.

The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances – The Observer

The idea of summoning the spirits took thrilling hold of the Victorian imagination – and has its adherents now. But the psychology behind spiritualism is more intriguing

As the evenings get darker and the first hint of winter hangs in the air, the western world enters the season of the dead. It begins with Halloween, continues with All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, runs through Bonfire Night – the evening where the English burn effigies of historical terrorists – and ends with Remembrance Day. And through it all, Britain’s mediums enjoy one of their busiest times of the year.

People who claim to contact the spirit world provoke extreme reactions. For some, mediums offer comfort and mystery in a dull world. For others they are fraudsters or unwitting fakes, exploiting the vulnerable and bereaved. But to a small group of psychologists, the rituals of the seance and the medium are opening up insights into the mind, shedding light on the power of suggestion and even questioning the nature of free will.

Humanity has been attempting to commune with the dead since ancient times. As far back as Leviticus, the Old Testament God actively forbade people to seek out mediums. Interest peaked in the 19th century, a time when religion and rationality were clashing like never before. In an era of unprecedented scientific discovery, some churchgoers began to seek evidence for their beliefs.

Salvation came from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox. On 31 March 1848, the girls announced they were going to contact the spirit world. To the astonishment of their parents they got a reply. That night, the Fox sisters chatted to a ghost haunting their New York State home, using a code of one tap for yes, two gaps for no. Word spread and soon the girls were demonstrating their skills to 400 locals in the town hall.

Within months a new religion had emerged – spiritualism – a mixture of liberal, nonconformist values and fireside chats with dead people. Spiritualism attracted some of the great thinkers of the day – including biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism in between knocking out Sherlock Holmes stories. Even the admission of the Fox sisters in 1888 that they had faked it all failed to crush the movement. Today spiritualism thrives in more than 350 churches in Britain.

The tricks and techniques used by mediums have been exposed many times by people such as James Randi, Derren Brown and Jon Dennis, creator of the Bad Pyschics website.

Last week I spent 40 minutes with a telephone spiritualist who passed on messages from four dead people. Like all mediums, she was skilled at cold reading – the use of probable guesses and picking up of cues to steer her in the right direction. If she hit a dud – the suggestion that she was in the presence of a 40-year-old uncle of mine – she quickly widened it out. The 40-year-old became an older person who felt young at heart. And then someone who was more of an uncle figure. She was also skilled at the Barnum effect – the use of statements that tend to be true for everyone.

Among dozens of guesses and misses, there was just one hit – the correct name of a dead relative. Their relation to me was utterly wrong, as were details of their health. But the name was right and, even though it was a common name among that person’s generation, it was a briefly chilling moment.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and magician, says my response to this lucky guess is typical. People tend to remember the correct details in a seance but overlook statements or events that provide no evidence of paranormal powers.

Derren BrownTV illusionist Derren Brown has often used his act to denounce paranormal practices. Photograph: David Yeo

Wiseman’s work has also shown that we are all extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion. With colleague Andy Nyman, co-creator of Derren Brown’s television illusions, Wiseman used contemporary descriptions of Victorian seances to recreate an encounter with spirits in a disused prison. Over eight seances involving 152 people, volunteers sat around a table in the dark holding hands while luminous painted bells, balls and maracas moved before their eyes. Surveyed afterwards, a fifth of the volunteers believed they had witnessed the paranormal.

“These things are often very simple,” says Wiseman, author ofParanormality. “We had a man creeping around with a stick. We thought when we read the original accounts of how seances were carried out that they wouldn’t fool anyone. We were wrong. A lot this is do with framing. Once you think you have an explanation for an event you don’t have any other ones. Once you think it’s a spirit you don’t look for another explanation.”

During the seance, Nyman, taking the role of the medium, announced that the spirit would raise the table. Soon afterwards he encouraged the spirit by saying “lift the table higher” and “the table is moving now”. Two weeks later a third of the participants recalled wrongly that the table had moved.

“Suggestion builds over time. If you ask people immediately after the event it is not so effective. You don’t want to solidify the memory immediately after the event,” says Wiseman.

The trappings of the seance increase its success. Holding hands prevents participants from disrupting the trickery. Darkness increases sensitivity to sound and movement and makes people more scared – which may, Wiseman says, increase susceptibility.

The seance can be explained by stage magic and human frailty. But what about phenomena such as table tipping and Ouija boards?

Table tipping, or turning, has gone out of fashion but is easy to replicate with four or more people, a small table, dim lights and a relaxed atmosphere. The group place hands on the table and wait. After 40 minutes or so the table should start to move. It soon appears to have a mind of its own, sliding, swaying and even pinning people to the walls.

The reason why household furniture can appear to be possessed was exposed more than 160 years ago by Michael Faraday, the discoverer of the link between magnetism and electricity. In 1852 Faraday was fascinated by the new craze of table tipping – and whether people or spirits were responsible. So he took bundles of cardboard roughly the size of a table top and glued them weakly together. Each sheet got progressively smaller from top to bottom, allowing Faraday to mark their original positions on the card above with a pencil. He then placed the cards on a table and asked volunteers to put their hands on the cards and let the spirits move the table to the left.

Ouija boardOuija boards were debunked by psychologist Joseph Jastrow in the 1890s. Photograph: Corbis

This experiment allowed Faraday to see what was moving the table. If it was spirits, the table top would slide out the cards from the bottom up. But if the participants were doing it, the top cards would be the first to move. By examining the position of the pencil marks Faraday showed that people, not spirits, moved the table. He had demonstrated the ideomotor response, the movement of muscles independent of deliberate thought. This also explains table tipping’s sophisticated big brother, the Ouija board.

In a Ouija seance participants place fingers on a glass on a table surrounded by letters and watch as it eerily moves – and occasionally spells out words. Psychologist Susan Blackmore is best known as the proponent of memes, but early in her career she was a parapsychologist. At Oxford she ran the student Psychical Research Society, carrying out experiments using Ouija boards. Time and again the glass spelled words and sentences. Her confidence began to be shaken when she modified the board.

“We turned the letters upside down because surely spirits should see the letters underneath,” says Blackmore, now a sceptic. “And of course it spelt out rubbish. It cannot work unless all the people can see what is going on.”

The ideomotor effect is also at play with the glass. “With a Oujia board, your arm is getting tired and your ability to judge the location of your finger is compromised,” says Blackmore. “When the glass moves you naturally adjust your movements and go along with the glass. To start with it moves hesitantly, but after a while as soon as it starts moving everyone’s hand follows.’

But what about the glass’s ability to spell? That was investigated by the American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in the 1890s. He used a device called the automatograph made of two glass plates separated by brass balls. Any involuntary movement of hands placed on the top plate causes it to move. The movement is recorded by a pencil attached to the device.

When Jastrow asked volunteers to imagine looking at an object in the room the automatograph revealed that their hands involuntarily moved in that direction. Just visualising the door was enough for the hands to drift towards it.

And that’s what’s happening with a Ouija board. If the participants look at a particular letter – because they expect it to follow next – they unwittingly nudge the glass towards it.

If the Ouija board has shed light on unwitting movement, then another technique, channelling of spirits, has questioned free will.

Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner, who died this year, is best known for his work on the rebound effect. Tell someone not to think about white bears and they immediately think about white bears. The more we try to actively suppress a thought, the less likely we are to succeed. But he also investigated automatic writing, where people claim to write without being aware what they are doing.

The most famous automatic writer was Pearl Curran, an American who knocked out more than 5,000 poems, novels and plays while claiming to be channelling the spirit of Patience Worth, a 17th-century Englishwoman.

Automatic writing has traditionally been explained as the action of the subconscious mind. But Wegner argued that the reason lay in the illusion of free will. Most people have a sense of their inner you – the conscious self that makes decisions about day-to-day life. According to Wegner this sense is an illusion. There’s evidence to back up this seemingly unlikely idea.

Arthur Conan DoyleSir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism. Photograph: Getty Images/BBC

In the 1960s, neurophysiologist William Grey Walter got volunteers to operate a slide projector while their brain was monitored with electrodes. The participants were told to press a button to change slides. But the button was a fake – the projector was controlled by electrical activity in the brain. The startled volunteers found that the slide machine was predicting their decisions. A fraction of a second before they decided to press the button, the part of the brain responsible for hand movement burst into activity and – through the electrodes – moved the slide on.

Grey Walter showed that there was a fraction of a second delay between the brain making a decision and someone being aware that they were making a decision.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libert of the University of California , San Francisco,made a similar discovery after attaching volunteers to electrical monitors and sitting them in front of a screen displaying a dot in a circle. The participants were told to flex their wrists whenever they liked, and report the position of the dots at the moment they made the decision to flex. Again, there was a surge in brain activity a fraction of a second before the volunteers were aware they were making a decision.

Wegner’s solution was that our deliberate, thinking brain – the inner me that makes decisions – is an illusion. Instead, the brain does two things when it makes a decision to raise an arm. First it passes a message to the part in charge of creating the conscious inner you. Second, it delays the signal going to the arm by a fraction of a second. This delay generates the illusion that the conscious mind has made a decision.

Wegner argued that automatic writing occurs when something goes wrong with this process. The brain sends the signal to the arm to write – but fails to alert the inner you.

There’s something a little ironic about his conclusion. The early spiritualists believed they were shedding light on the transition of the human spirit from the physical body to the afterlife. Wegner suggests that it’s not just the distinction between mind and body that is false, but the whole concept of the “conscious” decision-making mind is just another piece of trickery played by the brain.

And meanwhile, 150 years after Faraday showed that table tipping was hokum, we continue to frighten one another in the dark.

‘What is remarkable is that the stuff written in books 100 years ago still works,’ says Richard Wiseman. ‘If you think of all the technology and science and education and yet a group of people sitting in the dark can scare the living daylights out of themselves.’

via The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances | Science | The Observer.

A teaspoon of PEANUT BUTTER helps detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease

A teaspoon of PEANUT BUTTER helps detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers at the University of Florida have found that patients lose sense of smell in their left nostril faster than their right

Peanut butter was used as a ‘pure odorant’ in tests to determine loss of sense of smell

Test subjects had all been diagnosed already, but the study revealed that one day smell may be used to detect early stages of Alzheimer’s

Read More: Diagnosis in a jif? A teaspoon of PEANUT BUTTER helps detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease | Mail Online.

Are you a lunatic if you can’t sleep?

It’s a time for werewolves and strange doings down in the woodshed. The effects of the full moon are rich in folklore and feature endlessly in tales of the supernatural.  You just know something’s afoot when Alfred Noyes’ Highwayman rides out when ‘the moon is a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.’  The mad wander and dogs howl.

Anecdotal evidence of human behavioural changes during the time of a full moon is legion. The lunar cycle has been linked to a wide range of mystifying phenomena, from escalations in violent crimes and A&E admissions to fertility and blood loss. Even historically, the link between psychological abnormality and the moon phases seemed so evident, our very word for the insane was drawn from the moon: lunatic.

And yet the idea that a celestial body, 238,900 miles (384,400 km) away, could actually affect human physiology seems so fantastic even old wives might add disclaimers.

However, now Swiss scientists appear to have found evidence that the lunar cycle really does affect our sleep patterns.  According to their research, around the time of the full moon our sleep actually is more disturbed whether we can see the moon or not. Testing 33 healthy men and women, aged between 20 and 74, in a sleep laboratory, and correlating the data with the moon’s phases, they have made an astonishing association. As their study in the latest issue of Current Biology stated, in the sort of soporific language that only a sleep clinic could produce:

“Subjective and objective measures of sleep vary according to lunar phase and thus may reflect circa-lunar rhythmicity in humans. To exclude confounders such as increased light at night or the potential bias in perception regarding a lunar influence on sleep, we retrospectively analysed sleep structure, electroencephalographic activity during non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep, and secretion of the hormones melatonin and cortisol…”

Melatonin, the brain chemical that induces sleep, the total sleep time, and the ‘delta sleep time’ (our deepest sleep), all reached their lowest levels during the full moon, and their highest as the moon waxed and waned. The average time it took to fall asleep and the time to arrive at REM sleep (the type of sleep in which dreams occur) followed the opposite pattern, longest at the full moon and shorter as it waxed and waned.

As Christian Cajochen, a professor of neuroscience who led the study at the University of Basel, told the New York Times, “The only explanation we could come up with is that maybe there is a lunar clock in the brain, as found in other species like fish and other marine animals,” he said. “But we don’t have direct evidence for that.”

If these findings prove to be correct, they may help to explain the reports of increases in violent and abnormal behaviour during full moons. Both are also associated with sleep deprivation. The full ramifications of this report are still to be felt.  If we really are influenced by the position of the moon, have all those astrologers been right all along?  Will the moon’s gravity, that pulls the tides of the world, be found to really affect our disposition from birth, or even our future?  Today you can expect a tall dark handsome stranger to tell you.

Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How to Forget is available in all good book shops.

via Are you a lunatic if you can’t sleep? – KensingtonChelseaToday.