after the sleeping comes the waking up.

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Zombies, drugs, and loneliness

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

The last post was about a book I spotted by chance in a documentary about a completely unrelated subject. I came across Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis by a more circuitous route. It started with a Twitter post and through a bunch of intermediate steps I wound up with a battered library copy of it.

The central argument is that zombies, at least in Haiti, are real. They don’t eat brains or otherwise threaten the living, but they exist. But they’re not created randomly or just for cheap labor. Secret societies are responsible for allowing sorcerers to turn someone judged a criminal into a zombie. Zombification is the ultimate punishment for those who wrong others in the community. And this is a punishment that actually seems to have some deterrent effect.

Instead, the concept of slavery implies that the victim of zombification suffers a fate worse than death–the loss of individual freedom implied by enslavement, and the sacrifice of individual identity and autonomy implied by the loss of the ti bon ange [soul; personality, character, willpower]. It must be emphasized that the fear in Haiti is not of zombies, but rather of becoming a zombie. This fear is pervasive and has given rise to a complex body of folklore that continues to influence behavior. [page 9]

Every aspect of culture in rural Haiti fits together to reinforce the power of the secret societies, the reality of sorcerers’ powers, and the horror of becoming a zombie.

In other words, a world of few alternatives makes for an absolute acceptance of established tenets of belief, and those beliefs, in turn, have an absolute and exclusive validity. Within these confines the believer can maneuver with some intellectual ingenuity, but beyond the limits of the beliefs there is only chaos. Within such a system of belief there are no accidents, and no event has a life of its own. [page 55]

Davis does slightly underemphasize the importance of the psychological factors in zombification. Zombies are first exposed to a powder that includes the same toxin that makes fugu a sushi to die for. Then they’re buried alive while fully conscious (courtesy of the poison), which is enough to break anyone. Then they’re unburied and have the crap beaten out of them. Then they’re fed a hallucinogen and taken far from home. If they ever manage to get back to their family and friends, they are shunned. Isolated. The stress of these experiences is what really makes the zombie. The drugs that Davis spends most of the book talking about are only there to cause the apparent death of the soon-to-be-zombie and make it possible to bury him or her.

Seems like zombies are sufferers of an extreme form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and also must deal with the powerful stress of social isolation. (Note: I’m not a psychologist, so take my diagnosis here with a shaker of salt. Or a box.)

There’s been a lot of discussion lately, what with Halloween and the rebirth of the zombie movie, about what zombies symbolize. The usual theory is that they represent the dehumanization and de-individualization of people by consumer culture (modern zombies) or Communism (older zombies). To me, the cause of Haitian zombies is even more frightening.To think that real zombies are people damaged through the application of psychology is more horrific than images of movie zombies eating brains.

And it’s yet another reason to remember the humanity of all of those we encounter every day. Smile. Greet. Listen. Admire the wonder that is each individual.

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Why do we see faces in everything?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

There’s a word for the human ability to see something meaningful in random forms.

It’s “pareidolia”. From Wikipedia:

Pareidolia (pronounced /pærɪˈdoʊliə/) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek para- (“beside”, “with”, or “alongside”—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)) and eidolon (“image”; the diminutive of eidos (“image”, “form”, “shape”)). Pareidolia is a type of apophenia.

This is phenomenon behind Rohrschach tests and the sightings of the Virgin Mary in grilled cheese sandwiches and on office building windows, for example.

All it takes is three dark spots for humans to start seeing a face. Is the sandwich miraculous or is the human brain miraculous for turning random blots into a face?

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Do they need us or do we need them?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

I’m working my way through an interesting little book called Captured by Aliens by Joel Achenbach which covers how the idea of life on another planet has captivated the imaginations of both scientists and folks on the street. Running through the book is the idea that aliens (or at least the idea of aliens) fills a deep psychological need in people.

We don’t want to be alone, particularly in a place that’s one hundred thousand light years in diameter. [page 66]

Humans are wired to find patterns, meaning, in what they experience. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  The more bigger things the better. But Achenbach has a fascinating point about this need to belong.

This is what might be called the Central Irony of the UFO world. The belief in aliens is, at first glance, a firm embrace of the Copernican Principle. Humans are not the center of the universe. There are other intelligences. They are, indeed, smarter and more advanced. And yet these other intelligences are obsessed with us. They come across mind-boggling reaches of space to meet us, experiment with us, mate with us. We have such enchanting DNA, they just can’t stay away. Ufology, for all its generosity in filling the universe with life, nonetheless has a distinctly anthropocentric flavor. [page 35]

The same could apply to many of those bigger things we like to believe it, couldn’t it? Everything out there needs us. To influence, to protect, to observe, to explore, and for us to praise it.

It’s all about us.

And, in a lot of ways, these bigger things are often used as an excuse not to take responsibility for ourselves.

That’s why people are so desperate for contact–what we really want is for the aliens to save us from the trouble we’ve manufactured for ourselves. [page 267]

It’s scary to contemplate a universe where nothing is there looking out for us. It’s scary to think that we are responsible for ourselves.  It’s scary to say that we’re powerful enough to take care of ourselves.

And, somehow, this is still exciting. Yeah, it’s all about us, but not in the way that a lot of us seem to think.

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How do you make a zombie?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

Zombies have been all over the place lately and not just because it’s near Halloween. Zombie movies. Zombie books. Zombie, zombie, zombie.

But, in Haiti, zombies are another thing altogether. In Haiti, zombies aren’t just fiction, they’re real. There’s even a law against creating zombies.

Article 246 of the Haitian legal code explicitly condemns zombification, specifically the “use of substances whereby a person is not killed but reduced to a state of lethargy, more or less prolonged…. If, following the state of lethargy the person is buried, then the attempt will be termed murder.”

How does one go about making a zombie?  You start by feeding the victim TTX, the same poison found in the infamous fugu. That temporarily paralyzes the soon-to-be zombie. But the real damage is done later, according to Wade Davis, who researched the phenomenon.

The Haitian zombie, Davis argues, is the product of a series of terrifying experiences, all specific to the cultural context of rural Haiti. First comes the overwhelming trauma of having been buried alive. Clairvius Narcisse reported total lucidity through the entire ordeal. Upon removal from the coffin, the would-be zombie is fed a hallucinogenic drug from the plant Datura stramonium, locally known by the suggestive name concombre zombi. At the same time, the victim is given a ferocious beating by his captors. The final touch is the total rejection of the zombie by his own community. The cumulative effect is the destruction of the zombie’s will — what the Haitians call the “ti bon ange,” or the good little angel, the unseen thing that gives personality and resolve to each individual soul. The victim is now a zombie, and he knows he is now a zombie: He has fallen into a well-known trap from which no man or woman escapes.

His soul collapses.

The zombie is now like a living corpse.

This is more believable than I thought it would be. Especially after doing a little research about psychological methods used to break people’s resistance (sensory deprivation, sensory overload, and isolation are three common techniques). Even so, proof of real zombies is very, very limited. I’ve been inspired to read Davis’ book on the subject, Passage of Darkness to learn more.

Read the article at Men’s Journal.

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It’s really harmful? It’s not just my opinion?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

Richard Wiseman’s Quirkology is jam-packed with brief summaries of strange and interesting psychological research. We’re talking about things like whether or not watching religious programming affects people’s senses of humor, how walking speed is related to the pace of life in various cities, and, my favorite, whether regular exposure to country music increases the rate of suicide.

To find out, the researchers looked at the suicide rate and the amount of country music played on national radio in forty-nine areas across the United States. After controlling for several other factors, such as poverty, divorce, and gun ownership, the researchers did find that the more country music played on the radio, the higher the suicide rate. [page 145]

I knew that crap was bad for you.

Now, I tried to read the original article (“The effect of country music on suicide”, by Stack and Gundlach, Social Forces, volume 71, issues 1, pages 211-128, September 1992) and pick it to shreds, but it was written in statistics-ian. And I could only understand about every third word. So I’ll just have to Wiseman’s word that everything about the study is kosher.

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Do subliminal ads work?

Posted by c. wagner on November 6, 2009

Surely you’ve heard of the dangers of subliminal advertising and how it has been banned in the United States. Well, it turns out that the insidious threat posed by these brief messages, secretly implanted in films may have been wildly overstated.

The entire public and political debate [about subliminal advertising] had been based on fiction, not on fact. … His [James Vicary, the man behind the Coke and popcorn study] fictitious study has become the stuff of urban legend, and is still referred to by those who believe that buying behavior can be influenced by subliminal messages. [page 132-3]

Subsequent studies have failed to find any increase in buying behavior after exposure to subliminal messages. So, your brain is safe from this supposedly insidious form of manipulation. Advertisers have to rely on other forms of insidious forms of manipulation.

Another fun tidbit from Quirkology by Richard Wiseman.

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Can a therapist do much more harm?

Posted by c. wagner on November 4, 2009

A while back, I posted a note about how the existence of “recovered” or “repressed” memories was not supported by science. Today I stumbled upon a news story that brings up the subject again. This time, it happened in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

A therapist supposedly “helped” her client recover memories of abuse by a cult, government mind control experiments, murdered babies, and a forced marriage.

But whenever the troubled woman expressed doubts about her lurid delusions, her psychologist, Suzanne James, told her she was “in denial” and encouraged her to concoct even crazier theories, state investigators concluded. Without a shred of proof, James believed it all. The St. Cloud psychologist even provided dark sunglasses to shield her client from the cult’s lasers.

Needless to say, those were mind control lasers. Hoo boy. But there’s a little bit of light in this dark corner of psychotherapy.

In a report released last week, the Minnesota Board of Psychology found James violated numerous laws and regulations governing doctor-patient conduct. Instead of helping her client get better, the board said, James made her sicker, fostering a state of unhealthy dependence that made it virtually impossible for the client to function independently.

That said, James has not lost her license to practice. She will be monitored and can accept no new clients with multiple personality disorder.

The human memory is a frail thing at the best of times, but is even less secure when a person is hurting or even just stressed. It’s horrible when someone trusted with healing a person introduces more trauma into that person’s life. Trauma that is going to be very difficult for the patient to forget. The science does show that.

Read more from the Star Tribune.

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You mean I can’t be happy all the time?

Posted by c. wagner on November 2, 2009

The key to a happy relationship could be accepting that some miserable times are unavoidable, experts say.

Therapists from California State University, Northridge and Virginia Tech say accepting these problems is better than striving for perfection.

And they blame cultural fairytales and modern love stories for perpetuating the myth that enjoying a perfect relationship is possible.

I love that folks can work for tenure by publishing common sense. Of course, sometimes common sense is wrong…. Or uncommon…. And I’ve published a bit of common sense as well on my ongoing path toward tenure…. *sigh*

Read the summary article from the BBC.

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