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Documentary: “Resurrect Dead”

10 May

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.

Toynbee tiles are mysterious plaques that are embedded into the asphalt on many streets in a number of cities. There are two of them in Cleveland. Most of the tiles carry the message:

IN MOViE `2001

The tiles all appear to be carved by the same individual. The documentary is the utterly adsorbing story of a group of men who try to discover the origin of the tiles.

As a psychologist, I was fascinated both by the tiler himself who appears to have schizotypal traits and by the obsession of his pursuers. The film does not disappoint and the we do discover the identity of the tiler. But not until we have pursued leads including a David Mamet play, Larry King, historian Arnold Toynbee, and pirate radio stations.

Prisoner’s Dilemma Videos

19 Apr

Last night I was teaching the prisoner’s dilemma to my students. Turns out there are a lot of entertaining videos on the topic. For example:

My students found these especially enjoyable:

For a more serious look at the background:

My numerology paper published

12 Apr

Just off the presses “A Test of Numerology: Do Birth Numbers Predict Nobel Prize Winners?” published in The Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis. Here is the abstract:

This paper tests a claim made by numerologists – the belief that the digits of a person’s birth date summed to a single integer, called the birth number, has predictive power. In order to test this claim the birth number was calculated for persons winning Nobel Prizes between the years 1901 and 2010. The distribution of birth numbers for prize winners did not differ significantly from chance (χ2 = 4.92, df = 8, p = 0.77). The distribution of birth numbers between winners of different prize categories also did not differ significantly from chance (χ2= 28.9, df = 40, p = .90). These results provide no support for the claims of numerology

You can find the paper here.

People who never forget

5 Apr

Read about them in this Guardian article.

Crypto-spiritualism: The return of facilitated communication

8 Mar

Spiritualism is the belief that it is possible to communicate with the death through trance mediums. While there are historical antecedents, modern spiritualism began in 1848 in New York state, when the young Fox sisters claimed the power to produce raps from the spirit world.

Spiritualism promised communication with the  dead, and for the bereaved this was often an irresistible  hope.  Fraudulent mediums were happy to provide solace, for a price. Exposures of fraud, probably contributed to the decline of spiritualism, but even today there are believers.

Sunday’s Washington Post brought the sad news of a revival of the discredited technique called facilitated communication. Facilitated communication is supposed to allow people with severe autism and other developmental disabilities to communicate. It is easy to see why parents would want to believe that their non-verbal children could actually communicate, but our evidence shows that that facilitated communication does not work and that the messages are actually authored by the facilitators via the ideomotor effect.

Here is the American Psychological Association’s statement on facilitated communication.

And here is the powerful Frontline documentary on the subject.

The tradgey of Tony Rosato

18 Jan

Yesterday, I heard a talk by a retired corrections officer. He told us that a large percentage of the incarcerated people he dealt with were not not criminals but suffered from mental illness. It reminded me of how poorly equipped we are to help people with psychiatric issues.

This point was made again when I read The New York Times obituary for comedian Tony Rosato. Rosato’s successful career was derailed because he suffered from Capgras syndrome, a devastating psychiatric disorder.

Mr. Rosato, who refused to acknowledge his mental illness, did not plead guilty and spent the next two years in a maximum-security facility awaiting trial.

News media reports attributed the gap between Mr. Rosato’s arrest and trial to a combination of his intractability and the punitive approach of the Canadian authorities. “Tony Rosato will have spent more time in custody on a harassment charge than any other convicted prisoner in Canada has ever spent on the same charges,” his lawyer, Daniel Brodsky, told The Toronto Star before his trial finally began in 2007. A judge found Mr. Rosato guilty of criminal harassment that September. He was remanded to a psychiatric hospital, where he was found to have Capgras syndrome, a rare mental illness characterized by the delusion that loved ones have been replaced by impostors.

Language sounds may not be arbitrary

28 Dec

When I teach about language development, I have always told my students that the sounds of language are arbitrary. The fact that the same animal can be “dog” in English and “inu” in Japanese, shows that the sound systems of different languages are just historic accidents.

Well, maybe not. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there may be certain fundamental similarities between certain words across languages:

It is widely assumed that one of the fundamental properties of spoken language is the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning. Some exceptions in the form of nonarbitrary associations have been documented in linguistics, cognitive science, and anthropology, but these studies only involved small subsets of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today. By analyzing word lists covering nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages, we demonstrate that a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). Prominently among these relations, we find property words (“small” and i, “full” and p or b) and body part terms (“tongue” and l, “nose” and n). The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed. Our results therefore have important implications for the language sciences, given that nonarbitrary associations have been proposed to play a critical role in the emergence of cross-modal mappings, the acquisition of language, and the evolution of our species’ unique communication system.

One possible explanation for these similarities is that they are survivals from prot0-world, the hypothetical first human language. But note that the authors argue against this:

The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed

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