Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Inimitable Bruce Hood: Why we believe in the unbelievable

It's been a while since I posted as I've been busy getting around, as I do. For those that are interested, you can follow me on twitter.

It was the twenty-second day of June, 2009, I think, when I left my amazing customer services job to head to The Penderel's Oak in sunny Holborn for the monthly event we lovingly refer to as "Sceptics In The Pub" (although for some reason, it's spelt "skeptics"). On this fine evening, we were to be subjected to a talk by the sharply attired Professor Bruce Hood, who would make us laugh, wince, and spill Kopparberg down my pretty dress.

Before I continue, I'd just like to give a shout out to Sense About Science. If you don't know what it is or haven't signed up to it (or both) please do so here. To show off my creative prowess, I'd made a special fascinator to schmooze my way around the room in even more style than usual.

Back to the lecture: After some ritual technical difficulties (and insults thrown towards Sid) the talk began with the speaker's initial reaction to being invited to speak to us. He assumed it would be a bunch of middle aged men with beards, but Crispian and his ilk are fast becoming a minority as we young upstarts keep turning up :-) There were still some men with beards, but they were quite hip beards interspersed with the CAMRA beards.

Anyway, the main premises of the talk was how our preconceptions, our ideas, expectations and concepts shape how we perceive the world - and that the way we think about the world can explain the prevalence of supernatural beliefs.

We were shown this video of Kevin James smacking Sharon Osbourne in the gob (metaphorically). Most adults would assume it's a trick because we're fairly certain that you couldn't survive being chopped in half, and stapled back together. Apparently, around three-quarters of us endorse the supernatural - not just "healing energies" and "magick water", but so-called Secular Supernatural forces like telepathy or pre-cognition. According to Prof. Hood, nine out of ten people believe they know when they are being watched from behind. "Woo" is mainstream - look at horoscopes in pretty much all women's magazines, homeopathic "cures" in Boots, and Gloria Hunniford.

Despite the best efforts of prominent scientists like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins highlighting the debate on the supernatural to allow us normal folk to be more sceptical, many people still hold on to the spiritual. This may be due to science in general having a bad name, or it could be something to do with the way our brains are wired to the world:

How many times have we had a dream that comes true? I live in fear that a man with motorbikes for hands will try to eat me. Luckily, I've had this dream so many times that I've worked out he doesn't have opposeable thumbs so all he can do is bludgeon me to the point of near-death and rely on his girlfriend to cut me up for him to eat. Even luckier for me is that she is a closet lesbian and doesn't want to eat me (in that way, if you know what I mean) because I'm so damned beautiful. I haven't worked out how to tell her that I think she's a great person but I'm not actually gay. Hopefully she'll take it well.

Our brains have evolved to see structure and patterns in practically everything, from faces on the moon to penises in the clouds to Elvis shaped potatoes. Prof. Hood is able to peek into our brains, into our visual cortex, to find the cells that create these phenomenological experiences. These give us our intuitive theories from childhood, that are difficult to modify later in life. For example, children under five years old are already figuring out the world and the people in it. Another example: my eight year old cousin didn't believe me when I told her that some women are older than some men, because her dad's older than her mum and she has two older brothers. Even when I showed her my ID stating that I was (slightly) older than her brothers she thought it must be some elaborate hoax.

Other ideas like Natural Selection are not things that we are easily able to come to terms with, because as children, we are naturally inclined to believe that the world must have been created - we see obvious structure in everything - bumblebees, walnuts, Lego. It is much easier to accept that the world was just created, than it is to believe that it grew and evolved in the tiniest increments over billions of years, even though we have all this pesky evidence to suggest so!

Next, Professor Hood went on to the subject of Anthropomorphism - the ability to attach humanity to inanimate objects (like shouting at the DVD player, or congratulating your car on not breaking down). We attach sentimental value to inanimate objects, like jewellery owned by family members, or a cardigan owned by a serial killer.

This sentimentality can be taken even further. A few years ago, a book was released by a woman called Claire Sylvia, who had been the patient in a pioneering heart-lung transplant. You can read an article about it here. She's not the only one. There are more examples: Ian and Linda Gammons share the same dreams among other things, since she donated one of her kidneys to him. And lastly, Armin Meiwes, in a bizarre tale of mutually agreed cannibalism, was convinced that as he devoured Bernd-Jurgen Brandes he took on some of his abilities, like speaking English!

With the exception of Meiwes, these people are not mad, crazy lunatics. They are normal people who had life saving experiences, which made them alter their outlook on life. There could be any number of reasons as to why someone would be attracted to blondes later on in life. Perhaps a new lease of life has made them more adventurous? Perhaps after suffering for years without the joys of KFC, they suddenly want to throw caution to the wind and eat as much as they can get? We've all done it. What I find interesting is that we interpret these changes as supernatural because this seems to be the most logical, rational explanation at the time.

We are always interpreting the world. We do not sit there and passively receive information (unless we're watching Hollyoaks, of course, which has no real information to impart). There is a struggle between our intuitive theories and our rational ones. Supernatural beliefs could just be the products of our misconceptions, however we also seek out more plausible sacred values like football, or Michael Jackson, or even science.

The truth is out there, we're just interpreting it differently.

For more information, please visit Bruce Hood's excellent blog.

Edit: I originally put July instead of June. I'm getting way ahead of myself. Already spent July's wages here

Friday, 12 June 2009

Mile Hi Church

Today, I received an email from a lady wishing to use one of my songs as part of an inspirational video aimed at young adults. When I first read the email I was incredibly flattered - wow, someone wants to use my music to inspire young people! Then I saw what kind of organisation wanted to use it and I was less enthralled.

Below is my reply. I'm not one to offend, so I've worded it as carefully as possible, but this is the first time in my life I've encountered something like this!


My name is Lori and I work as a facilitator for adults and youth. I would like to use your song and video as part of an upcoming workshop. I will give you credit. It is my intention to use the video as you have placed it on the internet but would like permission to clip the first part of the video and start at the song.

I will only do this if you give permission.


Lori Morris, RDH Facilitator Healing Bridges Ministry
Mile Hi Church
Lakewood, CO 80226


Dear Lori,

I am extremely flattered that you identified with my song, and were inspired to write to me. Thank you for getting in touch with me first to obtain my permission, however, as a dedicated atheist, it would be against my personal principles for my material to be used in a way that conflicts with my own ethical practices.

With kind regards,

Carmen D'Cruz

I truly believe that it is our duty in life to seek the truth at all times, and this organisation charges people for the privelige of being lied to. It makes me feel incredibly uneasy to think that this kind of willing naivety can still exist in the 21st Century, and that others are happy to exploit that. To me, it demonstrates an abuse targeting the weakness of an individual to submit to an imaginary force. Inner strength comes from within. Get it? WITHIN.

Urgh. I've gone and put myself in a bad mood now. Please feel free to enjoy this fantastic video someone emailed to me the other day, it is truly uplifting.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

New Song - "It's Not Stalking, I'm Just Really Interested"

Click here to see a video of me playing with myself in my bedroom when my grandparents are at church!
Hello All!

Last night, I finally managed to get a decent accompaniment to a song I've been working on. It doesn't usually take me this long to write a song, but I recently discovered Tim Minchin, who's been doing the same sort of thing as me, but better, and on the piano. Initially I was dismayed, but now I've chosen to up my game, finish all my half-written songs, and get them online.

I need to tighten up the lyrics a bit, but here they are in their current(ish) form. As I'm used to singing live, I tend to mix the lyrics up a bit and giggle occasionally. Please forgive the lo-fi recording, it was done at 11pm last night, and I have a bit of a cold. Hopefully, you'll get the idea.

It's not stalking, it's not stalking
Yeah I'm just really interested
When you see me in the corner of your eye
Well I just happen to live nearby
Why would you think I'm trying to spy?
I am innocent, am I
But all evidence aside --
That'd be creepy

It's not stalking, it's not stalking
I just happen to be everywhere you go
Did you like my little painting
Showing u-us together?
In the painting you are singing "We'll be happy forever"
But that's not how I really think of you --
That'd be creepy

It's not stalking, it's not stalking
You just fascinate me in every single way
No, that wasn't me on ebay buying a lock of your hair
This is just a locket that I own that matches everything you wear
If I had access to a sample of your DNA --
That'd be creepy

That'd be creepy

Please let me know if you have any ideas for more verses!

Much love,
Carmen x

Monday, 1 June 2009

Chirporactic email

I'm feeling a little bit devil-may-care and have decided to ask www.thechiroblog.com if they can send me any evidence that they can treat migraines. I'm not expecting a serious response, but one can always hope.

Good afternoon,

I'm really interested in Chiropractic, as a sufferer of migraines, and was wondering if you could email me any studies to show its effectiveness in treating headaches and migraines?

It's quite an expensive practice here in the UK but I'm losing my patience with our health system.

Many thanks and kind regards,


I'll post their reply when I receive it.

Carmen x

Homeopathy Kills

I'm usually quite an amiable person. If someone comes up to me with an idea that sounds like bullshit, I'll usually smile politely and say something like "That's very interesting, it's great that it works for you" and then continue about my day, thinking nothing of it. Occasionally though, these ideas have an impact on my life, sometimes through the ones that I love.

Illnesses run in my family. Really annoying ones. I'm scared of breast cancer, bi-polar depression and IBS. When a dear aunt of mine went to see a "specialist" for the third one, we thought little of it, as we know how annoying it can be. She came back all excited, she had some special drops to take 3 times a day, it was all very thrilling. She'd get out a tiny handbag sized bottle, tilt her head all the way back and drip the potion down her throat, feeling better almost instantly. A few weeks later, however, she discontinued use of this "specialist" as it was costing her an arm and a leg, and actually wasn't doing much. "That's private healthcare" we all muttered.

Since finding out she'd gone to see a homeopath, the rest of the family have been rather bored of hearing anecdotal evidence of it working for other friends. "Yeah, great, works for you" is the uninterested response from them. More recently though, I've been hearing and reading things about it that are beginning to upset me, and piss me off a bit.

It's annoying for my aunt, with a frustrating but not life-threatening condition, living in London with a decent salary and all the trappings to be drawn in by homeopahthy and pseudo science - annoying because we have at our disposal a wide range of resources to check the facts. What gets my goat (and the farmyard animals of many others) is stuff like this, where quacks are either deliberately or naively recommending tripe to the vulnerable, whose illnesses are life threatening.

It's not just homeopathy, there are other practices, like chiropractic and acupuncture, claiming to cure things without any substantial evidence. Evidence, that-thing-wot-doctors-need-to-make-people-feel-better. You know, EVIDENCE, so that when I'm in a lot of pain, I can be relatively assured that the thing that someone suggests as a way to be in less pain is going to work. EVIDENCE.

In the words of the great Mr. Minchin:

"What do you call alternative medicine that works...? Medicine!"

I'm bored of quacks furiously defending their chosen professions without backing it up with evidence. I'm not talking about the testimonies of the people it has worked for, I mean a serious double or triple blind trial, with no self-serving interests involved. I genuinely want to believe that some of these alternative medicinal practices work, so that they can be provided on the NHS - IF THEY WORK. I hate all this "Alternative versus Biomedical" assertions. If everyone's trying to help people, and that is their goal, why are the BCA so reluctant to make their evidence public in the Simon Singh case? (scroll down for the bit about the "plethora" of evidence - by "plethora" do they mean "absence"?)

Urgh! I'm annoyed now. Where's my Bach's Remedy and Relief? Oh wait. It's turned into a bottle of brandy. That'll do.