Tag Archives: Benjamin Radford

Saved by Psychic Powers

via NeuroLogica Blog

eye_see_the_future_250pxIn just about every disaster or event in which there are many deaths, such as a plane crash, there is likely to be, by random chance alone, individuals who survived due to an unlikely sequence of events. Passengers missing their flight by a few minutes can look back at all the small delays that added up to them seeing the doors close as they a jog up to their gate. If that plane were then to crash, killing everyone on board, those small delays might seem like destiny. The passenger who canceled their flight because of flying anxiety might feel as if they had a premonition.

This is nothing but the lottery fallacy – judging the odds of an event occurring after the fact. What are the odds of one specific person winning the lottery? Hundreds of millions to one against. What are the odds of someone winning the lottery? Very good.

Likewise, what are the chances that someone will miss or choose not to take any particular flight? Very high – therefore this is likely to be true about any flight that happens to crash. If you are that one person, however, it may be difficult to shake the sense that your improbable survival was more than just a lucky coincidence.

A similar story has emerged from the Sandy Hook tragedy. A mother of a kindergartener there, Karen Dryer claims that her 5 year old son was saved by his psychic powers. She reports that her son, after a few months at the school, started to cry and be unhappy at school. He was home schooled for a short time, during which the shooting occurred. Now, at the new elementary school that recently opened, he seems to be happy.

In retrospect it may seem like a compelling story – if one does not think about it too deeply. As Ben Radford points out in the article linked to above, the story as told is likely the product of confirmation bias. The mother is now remembering details that enhance the theme of the story (her son’s alleged psychic powers) and forgetting details that might be inconsistent.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog . .

Spontaneous Human Combustion: Facts & Theories

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Live Science

For well over a century, some have claimed that people can suddenly and inexplicably explode into a ball of fire. The phenomenon is called spontaneous human combustion (SHC), and it has been described in many popular books on mysteries and the unexplained.
spontaneous human combustionThough the term “spontaneous human combustion” is of fairly recent vintage, it was a rare-but-real concern to many in the 1800s. In fact, there are nearly a dozen references to people bursting into flames in pre-1900 fiction. The most famous example is Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel “Bleak House,” in which a character explodes into fire, though the phenomenon can also be found in the works of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Washington Irving and others. In modern times, SHC has appeared in movies and on television shows, including “The X-Files,” and it’s even, sort of, the super-power of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in “Fantastic Four” comic books.

Spontaneous combustion theories

Fires do not typically start on their own. When investigators search for the cause of forest fires, they don’t assume that the flame ignited itself. Rather, they usually suspect that a careless camper or a lightning strike caused it. However, many things can self-ignite without exposure to flames, under the right circumstances, including coal dust, piles of compost and used oily rags.
spontaneous human combustion_300pxBut it’s a whole different matter to claim that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason. There is no doubt that bodies can burn; crematoriums routinely reduce the human body to ashes in the course of a few hours. The mystery of SHC lies in the supposedly strange circumstances under which victims burst into flames. Typically, the story goes, there is no obvious source of ignition, no open fires nearby that might set the person aflame. Furthermore, the victims are killed, and not, for example, only partly burned on one arm or a leg; SHC is fatal. Some claim that burning often seems to begin in the chest or stomach area, leaving the grisly remains of legs and hands intact. Others claim that the furniture and floors under and surrounding the victims (including even their clothing) remain mysteriously unburned.

A closer look

spontaneous human combustion 854_250pxSome of these popular claims are simply wrong. For example, there are many photographs of supposed SHC victims that clearly show extensive burning and damage to the clothing and surroundings of the burned person. It’s also important to understand a bit of fire forensics: many fires are self-limiting; that is, they put themselves out naturally because they run out of fuel. Though the public often sees uncontrolled fires completely engulfing and burning down entire rooms and buildings, fires are unpredictable. It is quite possible, for example, for only a rug, bed, or sofa to catch fire without spreading to the rest of the room. Because fires normally burn upward instead of outward, there is nothing paranormal or strange about finding a victim in one part of a room burned to death while the rest of the room has little more than smoke damage.
What about the source of ignition?

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Brain Games Don’t Improve Memory or Cognition

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

We’ve all seen the ads, banners, commercials and books hyping the benefits of “brain training,” offering games and puzzles that promise to keep your brain in tip-top shape as you age. Diseases such as dementia are terrifying, and millions of people do their best to stave it off though online games, crossword puzzles and so on.

brain game Mental-Fitness_225pxAs a recent Scientific American column noted, “cognitive training — better known as ‘brain training’ — is one of the hottest new trends in self improvement. Lumosity, which offers web-based tasks designed to improve cognitive abilities such as memory and attention, boasts 50 million subscribers and advertises on National Public Radio. Cogmed claims to be ‘a computer-based solution for attention problems caused by poor working memory,’ and BrainHQ will help you ‘make the most of your unique brain.’” It all sounds very impressive and scientific.

While it’s important to stay both mentally and physically active in our later years, there’s little evidence that most of the commercially-sold brain enhancement methods or pills do any good. In fact the scientific community pours cold water on these fanciful myths.

In late October the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered many of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to examine these brain games and programs. It then issued a statement that read in part:

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The Science and Non-Science of the Ouija

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

The new supernatural horror film “Ouija” hits theaters soon, and is expected to scare up big numbers at the box office this weekend.

The Oujia board, also known as a witch board or spirit board, is simple and elegant. The board itself is printed with letters and numbers, while a roughly heart-shaped device called a planchette slides over the board. The game was created in the 1890s and sold to Hasbro in 1966. It began as a parlor game with no association with ghosts until much later, and today many people believe it can contact spirits.

“Ouija” is only the most recent in a long line of movies featuring the board. Since the Oujia board’s film debut in the 1920 Max Fleischer film “The Ouija Board,” it has appeared in hundreds of films including “The Uninvited” (1944);”The Changeling” (1980); “Witchboard” (1986); and “Paranormal Activity” (2007).

Speaking to the Dead

People in all cultures have long believed that communication with the dead is possible, and throughout the ages many people have claimed to speak to the dear departed. Ghosts and spirit communication shows up often in classic literature, including in mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare’s plays.

Seance Scene in Dr. Mabuse the GamblerIn Victorian England it was fashionable in many circles to conduct séances; Ouija boards, three-legged tables, and candles were used to try to contact the dead. A century ago mediums “in touch with the spirit” during séances would write pages and pages of “automatic writing,” the psychic’s hands allegedly guided by ghosts to convey lengthy handwritten messages.

Since that time ghosts seem to have lost their will (or ability) to write—or even communicate effectively. These days the spirits (as channeled through mediums) seem to prefer a guessing game and instead offer only ambiguous, vague information: “I’m getting a presence with the letter M, or J in the name? A father, or father figure perhaps? Did he give you something special to remember him by, something small?” The Ouija board seems to cut out the middleman and let you communicate directly with the dead.

Fearing the Ouija

There’s a reason that scary movies are based on the Ouija game and not, for example, Monopoly or Scrabble. Many evangelical groups believe that playing with Ouija boards can lead to demonic possession.

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Also See: Video: What Makes Ouija Boards Move?

Are Ghosts Real?

Science Says No-o-o-o

The Pseudoscience of Ghost Hunting

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via livescience

If you believe in ghosts, you’re not alone. Cultures all around the world believe in spirits that survive death to live in another realm. In fact, ghosts are among the most widely believed of paranormal phenomena: Millions of people are interested in ghosts, and a 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses — and nearly half believe in ghosts.

ghost 820_250pxGhosts have been a popular subject for millennia, appearing in countless stories, from the Bible to “Macbeth,” and even spawning their own folklore genre: ghost stories. Part of the reason is that belief in ghosts is part of a larger web of related paranormal beliefs, including near-death experience, life after death and spirit communication.

People have tried to (or claimed to) communicate with spirits for ages; in Victorian England, for example, it was fashionable for upper-crust ladies to hold séances in their parlors after tea and crumpets with friends. In America during the late 1800s, many psychic mediums claimed to speak to the dead — but were exposed as frauds by skeptical investigators such as Harry Houdini.

It wasn’t until the past decade that ghost hunting became a widespread interest around the world. Much of this is due to Syfy cable TV’s hit series “Ghost Hunters,” now in its 10th season of not finding good evidence for ghosts. The show spawned several spin-offs, including “Ghost Hunters International” and “Ghost Hunters Academy,” and it’s not hard to see why the show is so popular: the premise is that anyone can look for ghosts.ElmerGhost02_250px The two original stars were ordinary guys (plumbers, in fact) who decided to look for evidence of spirits. Their message: You don’t need to be an egghead scientist, or even have any training in science or investigation. All you need is some free time, a dark place and maybe a few gadgets from an electronics store. If you look long enough, any unexplained light or noise might be evidence of ghosts.

The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn’t want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren’t looking out for us, or with us in our times of need? Most people believe in ghosts because of personal experience; they have seen or sensed some unexplained presence.

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Evolution of the Conspiracy Theorist

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Center for Inquiry

I’ve recently written about conspiracy theories, which means I have been recently attacked by conspiracy theorists. I thought I’d take a moment to briefly reflect on the evolution of conspiracy theorist…

The conspiracy theorist is, of course, not a new breed of human. All the basic psychological building blocks of conspiracy thinking are inherent in the human psyche, including distrust of authority, wantingagent smith 928_250px “inside information,” and real or imagined persecution-and, to be fair, often a dearth of critical thinking skills such as the ability (or desire) to separate anonymous rumor from established fact.

The conspiracy theory is at its heart a profoundly populist notion. It’s the common man demanding a peek behind the curtains of power-power in the form of information. Knowledge is power and information is the currency of conspiracists. For millennia there were no conspiracy theorists to speak of because most people had little or no access to independent information. News traveled very slowly from region to region, and anyway it didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much news anyway (“uncle Abraham’s cow died, more news as it happens”). Information and knowledge about the world came mostly from religious leaders. What went on in distant lands (or even neighboring countries) had little relevance to most people who spent their lives farming or fishing, living and dying without ever having strayed more than a few hundred miles from their birthplace.

conspiracy box secret package_250pxThe invention of the moveable type printing press was a boon to conspiracy theorists for the simple reason that books and knowledge was transportable. Instead of one source of knowledge there were dozens, or perhaps hundreds, and in some cases the authors had different viewpoints on the same subjects. As the old saying goes, a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never sure. If two authors disagreed, then someone claiming to be an authority was wrong-or even perhaps intentionally deceptive and intentionally hiding a truth.

Modern technology helped give birth to the modern conspiracy theorist as well. Decades ago conspiracy theorists largely relied on short-wave radio and crude stapled-and-photocopied mailings to gain followers and spread their enlightened truths. In the 1980s personal computers allowed conspiracy writers to create much more professional publications-in appearance, if not content-as well as “underground” magazines. One fascinating exception is the curious case of the . . .

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conspiracy theorist breakfast

Dyatlov Pass and Mass Murdering Yeti?

bigfoot right there

A Closer Look at Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Doubtful News

A new two-hour Discovery Channel “documentary,” Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives, revisits the curious case of nine Russian skiers who died under unclear circumstances in the Ural mountains. It is packed with dramatic “found footage” recreations, dubious derring-do, a pulse-pounding score, and piles of speculation.

Here’s the premise, based on a press release for the show:

“On February 2, 1959, nine college students hiked up the icy slopes of the Ural Mountains in the heart of Russia but never made it out alive.  Investigators have never been able to give a definitive answer behind who – or what – caused the bizarre crime scene.  hiking 753_225pxFifty-five years later, American explorer Mike Libecki reinvestigates the mystery—known as The Dyatlov Pass incident—but what he uncovers is truly horrifying…. Based on diary accounts, forensic evidence and files that have just recently been released, Mike pieces together the graphic stories in search of what really happened that evening.  According to the investigators at the time, the demise of the group was due to a ‘compelling natural force.’ The students’ slashed tent was discovered first with most of their clothing and equipment still inside.  Next, the students’ bodies were found scattered across the campsite in three distinct groups, some partially naked and with strange injuries including crushed ribs, a fractured skull, and one hiker mutilated with her eyes gouged out and tongue removed… Mike first heard about the Dyatlov Pass incident on a climbing expedition in 2011 and since then has become obsessed with the case… Determined to find answers, Mike hires Russian translator Maria Klenokova to join him.  Together, they set out to one of the most remote and inhospitable places on Earth.  However, nothing prepared them for what they were about to discover.  Following the trail of evidence, Mike finds proof that the hikers were not alone—a photograph, taken by one of the hikers a day before they died that suggests that they encountered a Yeti.  But just how far will they go to find the answers?”

tentFocusing on the undisputed facts in this case, we know that after nearly a week of skiing the group led by Igor Dyatlov, at some point on the night of February 1-2, 1959, cut slits in their tent and left through the cut for the safety of the wooded area below, most of them wearing their underwear or a few scraps of clothing. After they failed to return, a rescue party was sent, and tracks were followed from the tent to the woods, where all the skiers were found, some of them many months later. According to the autopsy, the cause of death for all of them was hypothermia, or freezing to death; four of the nine also had internal injuries, and one of them, Ludmila Dubinina, was missing a tongue and had additional injuries to her eyes. The biggest mysteries are why the group abandoned their tent (with their supplies and clothes inside), apparently in a hurry through a cut in the fabric; and what caused their injuries.

There are many elements and claims to the Dyatlov Pass story, and many theories including UFOs, top-secret government conspiracies, and unusual natural phenomena. I won’t be addressing those claims (in fact as we will see there’s really no need to invoke those anyway), but instead focusing on the plausibility of the newest theory as promoted in the new Discovery Channel show: That a Yeti was responsible for the mass murder of nine Russians in 1959.

The Group’s Injuries

hiking 754_225pxRussian Yeti: The Killer Lives begins with the premise that the injuries sustained by the skiers were so grave and extraordinary that could only have been inflicted by an inhumanly strong creature. The shows says that according to the autopsy, the hikers suffered “horrific injuries” including fractured ribs and a fractured skull attributed to a “compelling natural force” (in other words, some sort of blunt force trauma such as a fall or being crushed).

Unfortunately for the show, photographs of the dead hikers undermine most of the sensational claims. The photographs are crystal clear: the bodies were not “mutilated”. They were actually in fairly good shape for a party who had skied into the remote area, froze to death, and were discovered months later after exposure to the elements. Those who had cracked ribs were found at the bottom of a 13-foot ravine, and could have sustained the injuries falling into it, or at some point after their death during the months before they were found when buried by an avalanche or the weight of wet snow crushed them.

While a fractured skull might be considered “horrific” depending on your comfort with bodily trauma, according to the Mayo Clinic  .  .  .

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discovery channel_150pxAs of this writing, the Discovery Channel schedule shows the following broadcast dates and times for Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives:

  • 6/8/2014 @ 8:00 pm
  • 6/9/2014 @ 12:00 am
  • 6/9/2014 @ 3:00 am

The Riddle of Twin Telepathy

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

Many identical twins — perhaps as many as one in five — claim to share a special psychic connection. About one out of every 30 babies born in the United States is a twin, and identical twins are especially interesting because they have the same genes and are alike in many ways. Brothers and sisters can be close, but some twins claim to know what the other is thinking or feeling. It’s an intriguing idea, but what’s the truth behind it? Coincidence, psychic powers or something else?

shutterstock_40670914_250pxThis sort of psychological connection isn’t necessarily mysterious, of course: any two people who know each other very well and who have shared many common experiences — including non-twin siblings, old married couples, and even best friends — may complete each other’s sentences and have a pretty good idea about what the other person is thinking.

The idea of twin telepathy has been around for well over a century. It appears, for example, in the 1844 Alexandre Dumas novella “The Corsican Brothers.” It tells the story of two once-conjoined brothers who were separated at birth yet even as adults continue to share not only thoughts but also physical sensations. As one twin describes, “However far apart we are now we still have one and the same body, so that whatever impression, physical or mental, one of us perceives has its after-effects on the other.” The 2013 best-selling novel “Sisterland” by Curtis Sittenfeld also tells the story of twin girls who share a psychic connection.

telepathy500a_200pxMost of the evidence for twin telepathy is not scientific but instead anecdotal. For example, in 2009 a British teenager named Gemma Houghton was in her home when she suddenly had a feeling that her fraternal twin sister, Leanne, needed help. “I just got this feeling to check on her, so I went up to the bathroom and she was under the water,” she said. Gemma found Leanne in a bathtub, unconscious. She had suffered a seizure and slipped under the water, nearly drowning. Gemma called for help and administered first aid, saving her sister’s life.

The story of Gemma and Leanne Houghton has been widely cited as  .  .  .

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The Riddle of Twin Telepathy

Benjamin RadfordBenjamin Radford via LiveScience

Many identical twins — perhaps as many as one in five — claim to share a special psychic connection. About one out of every 30 babies born in the United States is a twin, and identical twins are especially interesting because they have the same genes and are alike in many ways. Brothers and sisters can be close, but some twins claim to know what the other is thinking or feeling. It’s an intriguing idea, but what’s the truth behind it? Coincidence, psychic powers or something else?

EvilTwins-th_250pxThis sort of psychological connection isn’t necessarily mysterious, of course: any two people who know each other very well and who have shared many common experiences — including non-twin siblings, old married couples, and even best friends — may complete each other’s sentences and have a pretty good idea about what the other person is thinking.

The idea of twin telepathy has been around for well over a century. It appears, for example, in the 1844 Alexandre Dumas novella “The Corsican Brothers.” It tells the story of two once-conjoined brothers who were separated at birth yet even as adults continue to share not only thoughts but also physical sensations. As one twin describes, “However far apart we are now we still have one and the same body, so that whatever impression, physical or mental, one of us perceives has its after-effects on the other.” The 2013 best-selling novel “Sisterland” by Curtis Sittenfeld also tells the story of twin girls who share a psychic connection.

Most of the evidence for twin telepathy is not scientific but instead anecdotal.

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Heaven for Real? PET Scans Offer Clues

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

A new film about a young boy’s near-death experience, “Heaven is For Real,” made a splash at the box office this past weekend, pulling in over $22 million. near-death-tunnel_150pxThe film, based on the best-selling book of the same name, is about a father whose young son, Colton Burpo, visits heaven.

Burpo’s experience, though unusual, is not unique: There are dozens of people who have claimed to visit heaven — or, less often, hell — during near-death experiences. The best-selling 2010 book “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” tells the story of another young boy’s near-death experience:

“In 2004 Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son, Alex, suffered a terrible car wreck. The impact from the crash paralyzed Alex — and it seemed impossible that he could survive. When Alex awoke from a coma two months later, he had an incredible story to share. Of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious … Of the angels who took him through the gates of Heaven itself.”

angels 644_300pxOf course neither Colton Burpo nor Alex Malarkey offered any real evidence of entering heaven, encountering angels or meeting God. These are two of many seemingly inexplicable examples of people who have been gravely injured and yet, upon recovery, later presented apparently accurate descriptions of things they should not have been aware of in their condition. Sounds, smells and snippets of conversations that occurred in the emergency room when the patient was assumed to be unconscious, comatose or even dead are offered as evidence of out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences.

A Scientific Explanation?

A recent study offers evidence that patients who are in a vegetative state may in fact have more awareness than previously thought. This research may also help explain near-death experiences. If, as this study suggests, apparently unconscious and vegetative patients are more conscious than assumed, their recollections are less mysterious.

An article in “The Scientist” reports:

“Some brain injuries can leave patients awake but unresponsive with little hope of regaining consciousness. But the gold standard of bedside evaluations, including shining light in the person’s eyes among other tests, may miss some subtle brain activity in patients in vegetative states — those thought to have little to no chance of ever recovering. According to a study published this week (April 16) in The Lancet, positron emission tomography (PET) scans can help clinicians detect with greater certainty these faint hints of consciousness even in patients thought to be hopelessly vegetative.”

PET scans, which can detect more subtle brain activity than the more frequently used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, found that . . .

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Can ‘Oil Pulling’ Improve Your Health?

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

The latest health fad making the rounds is something called “oil pulling,” an ancient Indian practice in which people cleanse their mouths (and bodies) of toxins by swishing a vegetable oil (such as olive, coconut, or sunflower) in the mouth for 20 minutes and then spitting it out.

oil-pulling_250pxIt’s ridiculously simple, and, it is claimed, amazingly effective. According to science writer Mike Rothschild’s blog for the Skeptoid podcast, “Oil pulling is said to treat chronic pain, insomnia, cavities, allergies, thrombosis, diabetes, asthma, bad breath, gingivitis, digestive issues, meningitis, low energy, heart disease, kidney disease, ‘toxic bodily waste,’ PMS, leukemia and even AIDS. Oil pulling, it would seem, is truly a life-changing medical miracle.”

Okay, so maybe swishing a few teaspoons of olive oil isn’t a “life-changing medical miracle.” Other claims are more down-to-earth; according to one proponent, “Oil pulling is an age-old remedy that uses natural substances to clean and detoxify teeth and gums. It has the added effect of whitening teeth naturally and evidence even shows that it is beneficial in improving gums and removing harmful bacteria. The basic idea is that oil is swished in the mouth for a short time each day and that this action helps improve oral health… The practice of oil pulling started in India thousands of years ago.”

oil pulling 02
The fact that oil pulling has been used for thousand of years (if indeed it has) is asserted as proof of its efficacy but in fact means nothing. This is an example of a logical fallacy called the “appeal to tradition.” Just because a practice has endured for hundreds or thousands of years does not mean it is valid. For nearly 2,000 years, for example, physicians practiced bloodletting, believing that balancing non-existent bodily humors would restore health to sick patients.

The fact that the premise was completely false and absurd made no difference: the patients who died were assumed to have been too sick (and not killed by the bogus medical treatment), and the ones who recovered (despite, not because of, the bloodletting) were convinced the treatment was a miracle cure. It’s the same reason that people believe superstitions  .  .  .

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TRUE or FALSE: Swishing plant oils in your mouth has been proved to ameliorate a variety of medical ailments? Click here for the answer.

TRUE or FALSE: Swishing plant oils in your mouth has been proved to ameliorate a variety of medical ailments?
Click here for the answer.

Synchronicity: Definition & Meaning

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

image descriptionAmazing coincidences happen all the time — but are they simply the product of random chance, or do they convey some hidden meaning? The answer may depend on whether you believe in synchronicity.

The term synchronicity was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). Jung had a strong belief in a wide variety of paranormal phenomenon, including psychic powers, astrology, alchemy, predictive dreams, UFOs and telekinesis (moving objects with the mind). He was also obsessed with numerology — the belief that certain numbers have special cosmic significance, and can predict important life events.

A flock of birds inspired Carl Jung's theory that everything in the universe is intimately connected.

A flock of birds inspired Carl Jung’s theory that everything in the universe is intimately connected.

Jung’s concept of synchronicity is complicated and poorly defined, but can be boiled down to describing “meaningful coincidences.” The concept of synchronicity came to Jung during a period of mental illness in the early 1900s. Jung became convinced that everything in the universe is intimately connected, and that suggested to him that there must exist a collective unconscious of humankind. This implied to him that events happening all over the world at the same time must be connected in some unknown way.

In his book “137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession,” Arthur I. Miller gives an example of synchronicity; one of his patients “told Jung that when her mother and grandmother died, on each occasion a flock of birds gathered outside the window of the room.” The woman’s husband, who had symptoms of heart problems, went out to see a doctor and “on his way back the man collapsed in the street. Shortly after he had set off to see the specialist a large flock of birds had alighted on the house. His wife immediately recognized this as a sign of her husband’s impending death.”

Is synchronicity real?

There is, of course, a more prosaic explanation for curious coincidence: birds are very common, and simply by random chance a flock will appear near people who are soon to die — just as they appear daily around millions of people who are not soon to die.

Confirmation bias: Selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs.

Confirmation bias: Selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.

The appearance of synchronicity is the result of a well-known psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias (sometimes described as remembering the hits and forgetting the misses); we much more easily notice and remember things that confirm our beliefs than those that do not. The human brain is very good at making connections and seeing designs in ambiguous stimuli and random patterns.

If Jung’s patient came to believe that a flock of birds meant that death was imminent, she would start noticing flocks of birds, and remember the times when they coincided with a loved one’s death. But she would not likely notice or remember the countless times when flocks of birds appeared over people who lived for years or decades longer. Put another way, a person dying when a flock of birds is present is an event; a person not dying when a flock of birds is present is a non-event, and therefore not something anyone pays attention to. This is the result of normal human perceptual and memory biases, not some mysterious cosmic synchronicity.

It’s easy to see why synchronicity has mass appeal; it provides meaning and order in an otherwise random universe. One famous (and more modern) example of synchronicity is  .  .  .

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What is Stigmata?

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

Stigmata15b_250pxPeople who have stigmata exhibit wounds that duplicate or represent those that Jesus is said to have endured during his crucifixion. The wounds typically appear on the stigmatic’s hands and feet (as from crucifixion spikes) and also sometimes on the side (as from a spear) and hairline (as from a crown of thorns).

Along with possession and exorcism, stigmata often appears in horror films, and it’s not difficult to see why: bloody wounds that mysteriously and spontaneously open up are terrifying. However, stigmatics, who are typically devout Roman Catholics, do not see their affliction as a terrifying menace but instead as a miraculous blessing — a sign that they have been specially chosen by God to suffer the same wounds his son did.

Curiously, there are no known cases of stigmata for the first 1,200 years after Jesus died. The first person said to suffer from stigmata was St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), and there have been about three dozen others throughout history, most of them women.

Padre Pio

A young Padre Pio (born Francesco Forgione) displays his stigmata.

A young Padre Pio (born Francesco Forgione) displays his stigmata.

The most famous stigmatic in history was Francesco Forgione (1887-1968), better known as Padre Pio, or Pio of Pietrelcina. The most beloved Italian saint of the last century, Padre Pio first began noticing red wounds appearing on his hands in 1910, and the phenomenon progressed until he experienced full stigmata in 1918 as he prayed in front of a crucifix in his monastery’s chapel.

Padre Pio was said to have been able to fly, and also to bilocate (to be in two places at once); his stigmata was allegedly accompanied by a miraculous perfume; the Rev. Charles Mortimer Carty, in his 1963 biography of the saint, noted that it smelled of “violets, lilies, roses, incense, or even fresh tobacco,” and “whenever anyone notices the perfume it is a sign that God bestows some grace through the intercession of Padre Pio.”

Journalist Sergio Lizzatto, in his book “Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age” explains the social context in which Padre Pio’s stigmata emerged: “In the first years of the twentieth century, when Padre Pio was a seminarian, the Eucharist — the body and blood of Christ — was at the height of its importance in Catholic practice. Communion was celebrated frequently and became a mass phenomenon. At the same time, asceticism was interpreted in ever more physical terms. Body language — ecstasy, levitation, the stigmata — was held to be the only real mystical language.”

Pio’s stigmata appeared, Lizzatto argues, because that’s exactly what the church and its followers expected to appear in its most devout servants: Jesus’ real, physical torment visited upon the holiest of men.

Though Padre Pio was widely beloved, many weren’t convinced that the friar’s wounds were supernatural. Among the skeptics were two popes and the founder of Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Agostino Gemelli, who examined Padre Pio and concluded that the stigmatic was a “self-mutilating psychopath.”

Still, Padre Pio garnered a widespread following and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Though Pio, who died in 1968, never confessed to faking his stigmata, questions about his honesty surfaced when it was revealed that he had copied his writings about his experiences from an earlier stigmatic named Gemma Galgani. He claimed ignorance of Galgani’s work, and could not explain how his allegedly personal experiences had been published verbatim decades earlier by someone else. Perhaps, he suggested, it was a miracle.

Is stigmata real?

Encyclopedia of Claims_300pxSo is stigmata real, or a hoax, or something in between? The claimed miracle of stigmata — like inedia, where people who claim not to eat food — is very difficult to scientifically verify. Veteran researcher James Randi, in his “Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural,” notes that “Since twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance would be necessary to establish the validity of these phenomena as miracles, no case of stigmata exists that can be said to be free of suspicion,” and though the possibility of genuine stigmata can never be ruled out, “It is interesting to note that in all such cases, the wounds in the hands appear at the palms, which agrees with religious paintings but not with the actualities of crucifixion; the wounds should appear at the wrists.”

If stigmata is real, there is no medical or scientific explanation for it.

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The Lore and Lure of Ley Lines

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

Many people believe that a grid of earth energies circles the globe, connecting important and sacred sites such as Stonehenge, the Egyptian Pyramids, and the Great Wall of China.

If you plot these and other sites on a map, a curious thing becomes apparent: Many of them can be connected by straight lines. Were these monuments and sacred sites specifically built at those locations by ancient people with lost knowledge of unknown earth energies especially strong along these “ley lines”?

Conspiracists like to play connect-the-dots with important and sacred sites around the world to make pretty lines.

Conspiracists like to play connect-the-dots with important and
sacred sites around the world to make pretty pictures.

History of ley lines

People have often found special significance in the unusual landmarks and geological features surrounding them. High mountain peaks and majestic valleys may be viewed as sacred, for example, while deep, dark caves have often been considered the domain of the underworld. The same is true for roads; in 1800s on the British Isles many people believed in mysterious “fairy paths,” trails connecting certain hilltops in the countryside. It was considered dangerous (or, at the very least, unwise) to walk on those paths during certain days because the wayward traveler might come upon a parade of fairies who would not take kindly to the human interruption.

gridviewPhilip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate describe the origin of ley lines in their “Book of English Magic”: “Alfred Watkins, a landscape photographer in Herefordshire, noticed that ancient sites seemed to be aligned with others nearby. His idea was that our ancestors built and used prominent features in the landscape as navigation points. These features included prehistoric standing stones and stone circles, barrows and mounds, hill forts and earthworks, ancient moats, old pre-Reformation churches, old crossroads and fords, prominent hilltops and fragments of old, straight tracks. Watkins went on to suggest that that the lines connecting these ancient sites represented old trackways or routes that were followed in prehistoric times for the purposes of trade or religious rites, and in 1921 he coined the term ‘ley lines’ to describe these alignments.”

Watkins himself did not believe that there was any magical or mystical significance to ley lines. However, the authors note, “The idea that there is a hidden network of energy lines across the earth … fired the imagination of the burgeoning New Age movement, and dowsers in particular became keen on detecting leys with dowsing.”

Because of this New Age interest, ley lines rose from mundane origins to an entire field of study, spawning books, seminars, and groups of ley line enthusiasts who gather to discuss, research, and walk the lines. Ley lines have also been incorporated into a variety of otherwise unrelated paranormal subjects, including dowsing, UFOs, Atlantis, crop circles and numerology.

Science and pseudoscience

You won’t find ley lines discussed in geography or geology textbooks because they aren’t real, actual, measurable things. Though scientists can find no evidence of these ley lines — they cannot be detected by magnetometers or any other scientific device — New Agers, psychics and others claim to be able to sense or feel their energy.

After all, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

After all, a straight line IS the shortest distance between two points.

Watkins’s original idea of ley lines is quite valid and rather intuitive; archaeologists have long known that, on a local and regional scale, roads tend to be built in more or less straight lines, geography allowing, and since a line is the shortest distance between two points it makes sense that important sites in a given culture would often be aligned, not randomly placed.

Ley line experts cannot agree on which “sacred sites” should be included as data points. Some internationally known ancient sites are obvious choices, such as England’s Stonehenge, Egypt’s Great Pyramids, Peru’s Machu Picchu ruins, and Australia’s Ayers Rock. But on a regional and local level, it’s anyone’s game: How big a hill counts as an important hill? Which wells are old enough or important enough? By selectively choosing which data points to include or omit, a person can come up with any pattern he or she wishes to find.

With literally tens of thousands of potential data points around the globe, it is little wonder that ley lines . . .

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The Evil Eye: Meaning of the Curse & Protection Against It

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

If we accidentally cut someone off in traffic, we may get a scowl or menacing glare in return. For most of us it is soon shrugged off, but in many places the evil eye is taken very seriously.

evil-eye_250pxThe evil eye is a human look believed to cause harm to someone or something else. The supernatural harm may come in the form of anything from a minor misfortune to disease, injury or even death. Folklorist Alan Dundes, in his edited volume “The Evil Eye: A Casebook,” notes that “the victim’s good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with the evil eye. If the object attacked is animate, it may fall ill. … Symptoms of illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive yawning, hiccups, vomiting, and fever. If the object attacked is a cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or fruit tree, it may suddenly wither and die.”

It can even affect objects and buildings: The evil eye cast upon a vehicle may cause it to break down irreparably, while a house so cursed may soon develop a leaky roof or an insect infestation. Just about anything that goes wrong (for any reason, or no reason at all) may be blamed on the power of the evil eye.

Eye in history

The evil eye is well known throughout history. It is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well as in many famous literary works, including the Bible (Proverbs 23:6: “Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats”), the Koran and Shakespeare.

The evil eye is essentially a specific type of magical curse, and has its roots in magical thinking and superstition.

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Psychics Boost Believers’ Sense of Control

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

A new study has found that people who believe that psychics can predict the future tend to feel more in control of their lives than those who don’t.

A group of Australian researchers from the University of Queensland led by Katharine Greenaway offered the hypothesis that belief in psychic prediction would be positively correlated with a sense of control over one’s life.

psychic 1208“If it is possible to predict what the future holds, then one can exert control,” the study reports. “Having insight into what will happen in the future would therefore allow people to control their outcomes in a way that would guarantee personal success and survival.”

Several experiments were done to examine this phenomenon. In one of them, two groups of people were asked to read passages either promoting or disputing the idea that scientists have found evidence of precognitive psychic powers.

Afterwards, each group was asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about how much control they feel they have over their lives and circumstances.

Those who read the information confirming the existence of psychic powers agreed more strongly with statements such as “I am in control of my own life” and “My life is determined by my own actions” than those in the other group.

The Psychology of Prediction

What’s behind this psychology of prediction? Humans are a pattern-seeking species, and we constantly look for ways to make sense of the world around us. Many superstitious people, for example, find — or, more accurately, believe they find — ways of knowing and even influencing the future. Gamblers may wear a lucky shirt to a casino, for example, or an athlete might perform a small ritual before a game to assure good luck.

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Did Woman’s ‘Visions’ Locate Missing Boy?

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

The search for a missing 11-year-old California boy came to a tragic end recently when the body of Terry Smith Jr. was found. The boy’s mother reported him missing July 7, and his body was found three days later not far from his home in the rural town of Menifee, according to news reports.

psychic 1208A woman named Pam Ragland, who claims to have psychic or intuitive powers, is being credited by police and others as having located the boy through her visions, according to news reports.

Driven by recurring visions of the boy, a distinctive home and a tree, Ragland searched the area where the boy was last seen, and to her surprise, found a home and tree matched those in her visions, even though she lived 60 miles away and had never been there. Ragland and her children searched the area and discovered Smith buried in a shallow grave near the tree.

The case is strange and intriguing, but not unexplainable. Clues to solving the mystery may lie in psychology and statistics.

Prophetic visions?

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

Because Ragland had never met the Smith family nor been to their property, how could she possibly have recognized their home from her psychic visions? The answer is simple: She very likely saw it on television. Ragland stated that she had been following the extensive news coverage about the missing boy, and that she had her first visions while she was watching a news report about the search for Smith.

Television reports included photographs and video footage of the Smith home and property, and whether or not Ragland remembered paying attention to those images, she had indeed seen the Smith property before she arrived there.

Therefore the fact that a house and tree in her vision “matched” the house and tree where Smith was finally found is not surprising, and merely evidence of her not remembering where she saw an image, not psychic powers.

Psychics or statistics?

psychic_200pxWhy would Ragland suddenly get a (correct) vision of Smith’s location? She has stated believes that she and her children are “intuitive” and that the senses, ideas and intuitions that come to her are meaningful and important.

In high-profile missing persons cases, it is common for police to be inundated with hundreds or thousands of visions, hunches, and feelings from psychics, most of which are contradictory and all of which turn out to be wrong. Despite popular belief and claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due to psychic information.

Like Ragland, many psychics state they genuinely believe in their powers and abilities, and are sincerely trying to help. Over the course of many missing persons cases and tens of thousands of visions and predictions, eventually a few of them will turn out to be correct simply by chance.

In this case, however, Ragland’s chance of correctly guessing where Smith’s body would be found was much better than pure chance.

It is a statistical fact that . . .

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Here to Hereafter: Can Psychics Really Talk to the Dead?

By Benjamin Radford  via LiveScience (October 2010)

psychic 920_250pxIn the … Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter,” Matt Damon stars as George, a man who has the ability to communicate with ghosts. George, who retired from the contacting-the-dead business (calling it a curse instead of a blessing) is reluctantly drawn back into doing  readings for people who have recently lost loved ones.

People in nearly every culture have long believed that communication with the dead is possible, and throughout the ages many people have claimed to be able to speak with the dearly departed. Ghosts and spirit communication often show up in classic literature, including mythology, the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays.

In Victorian England, it was fashionable in many circles to conduct séances; Ouija boards, three-legged tables, candles and other accoutrements were used to try to contact the dead. ouija-board-gifIn the U.S., belief in communication with the dead rose dramatically in the 1800s along with the rise of Spiritualism, a religion founded on hoaxed spirit communication by two young sisters in Hydesville, N.Y. Despite the fact that the sisters later admitted they had only been pretending to get messages from the dead, the religion they helped start flourished, claiming more than 8 million adherents by 1900.

For well over a century, many mediums have been caught faking spirit communication. Harry Houdini exposed many psychics as frauds who used trickery to make vulnerable people believe in the reality of spirit messages. (For more on this, see Massimo Polidoro‘s book “Final Séance,” Prometheus Books, 2001).

ghost-1_200pxWhether real or faked, the messages supposedly conveyed from the great beyond have changed dramatically over time. A century ago, mediums “in touch with the spirit” during séances would write pages and pages of “automatic writing,” the psychic’s hands allegedly guided by ghosts to convey lengthy handwritten messages.

Curiously, ghosts seem to have lost their will (or ability) to write since that time — or even communicate effectively. These days the spirits (as channeled through mediums) seem to prefer a guessing game and instead offer only ambiguous, vague information: “I’m getting a presence with the letter M, or J in the name? A father, or father figure perhaps? Did he give you something special to remember him by, something small?”

If spirit communication is real, one might think . . .

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Dowsing: The Pseudoscience of Water Witching

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

dowsing 730_300pxDowsing is an unexplained process in which people use a forked twig or wire to find missing and hidden objects. Dowsing, also known as divining and doodlebugging, is often used to search for water or missing jewelry, but it is also often employed in other applications including ghost hunting, crop circles and fortunetelling.

The dowsing that most people are familiar with is water dowsing, or water witching or rhabdomancy, in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch (or two L-shaped wire rods) and walks around until they feel a pull on the branch, or the wire rods cross, at which point water is allegedly below. Sometimes a pendulum is used held over a map until it swings (or stops swinging) over a spot where the desired object may be found. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits and even archaeological ruins.

[…]

Dowsing: No better than chance

Skeptic James Randi in his “Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural,” notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when divining rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”

Though some people swear by dowsing’s effectiveness, dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. It’s not surprising that water can often be found with dowsing rods, since if you dig deep enough you’ll find water just about anywhere. If missing objects (and even missing people) could be reliably and accurately located using dowsing techniques, it would be a great benefit: If you lose your keys or cell phone, you should be able to just pull out your pendulum and find it; if a person goes missing or is abducted, police should be able to locate them with dowsing rods.

Science differs from the New Age and paranormal belief in that it progresses, correcting and building on itself. Technology and medicine are continually advancing and refining. Designs and techniques are improved or abandoned depending on how well they work. By contrast, dowsers have not gotten any more accurate over centuries and millennia of practice.

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Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

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