Sunday, 23 October 2016

I’ve Got Those Post-QED Blues

Ever since I joined the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society (GMSS) they’ve been talking about something called QED. A conference? For £99? I’ve been to conferences before. They’re often dull, tedious affairs where you get stuck talking to people. Not anything to get excited about. 

As the event drew nearer, I saw the list guest speakers: Prof Richard Wiseman, Prof Caroline Watt, Dr Sue Blackmore. Psychologists I have referenced in my dissertation! This looks interesting. As I got to know my fellow skeptics and they became friends, more and more were going. Some were even volunteering.

“There’s a free day you say? Called Skepticamp?” The Friday before the two day event is day where activists can share their experiences and passions in a series of talks. Following the success of my EVP talk at the GMSS Soapbox event I volunteered to discuss my research. So I was going to one of the days at least…

Then I was extremely fortunate to receive a free ticket for the full conference (Sat and Sun). I am so glad I did as I would have missed a wonderful, enlightening experience. I heard some amazing talks and met so many interesting like-minded people. I have many highlights but here are just some:

-        Prof. Caroline Watt’s talk on Koestler Unit at Edinburgh University (pre-QED talk at GMSS)
-        Dr Sue Blackmore on her out of body experience
-        A paranormal panel with Prof. Caroline Watt, Sue Blackmore, Hayley Stevens and Deborah Hyde
-        Paul Zenon ‘Secrets of the Psychics’
-        The Quirkology room filled with visual illusions
-        Learning magic tricks with Dave Alnwick

The skeptical movement has a lot to offer. It has crossover with many disciplines and unlimited scope. As with any collection people motivated by a unifying force, it can fall into the trap of being closed to the very groups it is trying to engage. This point was made at the conference and there were some great examples of ‘reaching out’ to the wider community, such as The Paranormal Challenge and Glasgow Skeptics. 

My thoughts on the debate between skeptics and believers is documented on this blog You’ll never change minds if you only talk to those who agree with you!

I would like to thank the organisers, speakers and volunteers at QED for a wonderful experience. I now have post-QED blues and like many others will be counting down the months until the next one. 

Sunday, 2 October 2016

High School Reunion: Face and Name Recognition

I went to my 20 year high school reunion this weekend. I'd originally discounted the idea but braved it as I didn't want to regret not going. Needless to say I was nervous. Once I was on my way my 'extrovert' cover kicked in and I was ready... I'm pleased to say it was a good night and I'm glad I went.

This post isn't to detail the evening but to discuss what was a real-life demonstration of the way our brains process names and faces. Many people will say: "I'm not good at remembering names but I never forget a face!". This is true for most of us. Our facial recognition system is excellent. 

As social animals we are predisposed to detect, store and recognise faces. The more we see a face to stronger the memories become so we can recognise that person in different settings. This also includes other relevant semantic information (occupation, family members, voice etc). Names are not as important for survival so are processed differently.

Whilst we might retrieve semantic information about that person without recalling their name we don’t recall their name without also retrieving the semantic information. Perceptual classification, i.e. judging whether a face is familiar, occurs before semantic classification. A person’s name is accessed last (Bruce and Young, 1986). I must be slightly odd as I encountered an extra scenario (3):

1. I recognised the face and remembered the name
2. I recognised the face but couldn't remember the name
3. I recognised the name but couldn't remember the associated image from school

There are also other peculiarities regarding how we process faces. For example, we find it harder to recognise faces from different ethnic groups. This has obvious implications for eye witness testimony. We are unable to note distortions in faces if the image is presented upside down (Thatcher Effect). We easily see faces in inanimate objects, such as clouds, tree bark (pareidolia).

There are conditions where the process does not work as above. Prosopagnosia (face blindness) is a deficit in face perception whilst other functions remain intact. A more extreme version is Capgras syndrome where the person recognises the face but does not have the associated emotions so believes that person is an 'imposter'. Worst still, Cotard delusion is where you fail to have emotions regarding your own face so believe you are dead!

So next time you forget a name just blame it on your brain! It’s perfectly normal. My recommendation for 25 year school reunion? Name badges!

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Ghostbusters Review: It was Feigin’ Awesome!

I went to see the new Ghostbusters film this weekend. Like many other fans of the original, I was supportive of the reboot but apprehensive about what it would be like. I went fancy dress (see below) and was super excited. For me it didn’t disappoint… 
As a reboot, rather than a remake, it kept to the spirit of the original but sufficiently deviated to be worthy in its own right. Whilst I have huge affection for the original films I don't have the same emotional connection as some people. Many have said Ghostbusters got them interested in the paranormal but for me this was my mother's experiences (see previous post). 

As in the first film, it touched on the treatment of psychical research in academia. This is something I have encountered myself. Despite coming from an anomalistic psychology framework I have had negative comments about the legitimacy of my research. This is not exclusive to parapsychology of course. 

Spoiler alert: Dr Erin Gilbert (Kirsten Wiig) has her career at a prestigious university ruined by a book she wrote on the paranormal with an old friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Yates is now at a less prestigious higher education institution researching the paranormal and there's a funny scene where even they stop their funding. 

The ‘female’ humour was well pitched but not aliening and I laughed out loud so many times! It reminded me of the comedy series Miranda in that we've known ourselves or others to do similar daft/stupid stuff. The gender role reversal of the 'dumb blonde' secretary Kevin has come into some criticism, particularly by my male friends. For me this was inspired! He was funny, endearing and the humour was not exploitative. In contrast to the traditional format. Although, there may have been a couple of jokes too many in parts. My fav character was Holtzmann along with those I went to watch it with. Kate McKinnon nailed eccentricity without being annoying. 

The plot was interesting and well executed. The main characters displayed good chemistry and the relationships were believable. The cameos were a delight (see how many you can spot!). As expected the graphics were amazing and I loved the ghosts. I would have liked some more 'darkness' and creepiness but don't judge them for making the film appeal to a universal audience. This is only what happened with the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters and to a certain extent Ghostbusters 2. Depending on its success it looks set to have a sequel. Hint: make sure you stay until the end of the credits! 

Viewed as a standalone film it was enjoyable, funny and entertaining. I would definitely recommend you watch it, I know I'll be seeing it again. As with other paranormal phenomena keep an open mind. You just might like it!

Saturday, 4 June 2016

A Sceptic Goes to the Chiropractor

Due to the amount of studying I’ve done since 2009, i.e. sitting at a computer! I’ve developed issues with my neck and shoulders. I suffer with chronic muscle tension and reduced mobility in my neck. As I only have a few months left until I finish my MSc I was going to put up with it but it has become more painful and is affecting my mood. In the past I’ve visited the doctor and have been given an X-ray and physio exercises. Whilst these have helped I felt I needed something to get me through the last part of my studies. The obvious answer is less time at a desk and increased exercise but that isn’t an option until Oct (my deadline).

I decided to visit a chiropractor to see what they could do to help. As a sceptic this is something I have avoided. The practice is not well regarded in some circles, particularly when their claims stretch (get it?) beyond spinal alignment to other vaguer benefits (see Simon Singh in press) and everyone has heard a horror story or two. The placebo effect is well documented but if it provides permanent relief then that’s a positive. The mind can be a powerful treatment for those lucky enough to be susceptible. For example, I’m not hypnotisable. The place I visited was highly recommended and several friends/relatives had been. As the saying goes: I’ll try anything one, twice if I like it! 

I was very nervous beforehand and desperately wanted to cancel. I think the receptionists could see I was anxious as they told me to relax. I’m not normally such as woss. A friend had warned me you have to get undressed so wore my better underwear. You do wear robes! In my case fetching 1970’s paisley. I did find this aspect uncomfortable though. The practitioner knew his stuff and argued he treated patients as individuals and holistically. He asked me to describe my issue without the lens of what others had told me.

I have become so used to keeping my neck straight the diagnostic manipulation was horrible. It wasn’t painful I was just waiting for something to make a horrid noise. It didn’t. Being on the ‘rack’ was a scary experience and the re-alignment itself was terrifying although over in a blink of an eye. I must admit my muscle strength and mobility did seem to be improved immediately after. Apparently I will need another three treatments then there should be a decent improvement, although not a total cure.

Afterwards I was obsessed with whether it had made it better or worse. To the point I barely moved which made it worse. I was a little confused what I should or shouldn’t do with regards to stretches so will have to ask that next time. Whilst the pain is still there is does seem more localised but only time will tell. The jury’s still out on whether it will help. I’ll know more in a few weeks. 

Any ‘complimentary’ treatment is never a substitute for mainstream medicine and I would never have gone without first seeking a doctor’s diagnosis. Always be critical of claims but equally don’t exclude something just because of other’s judgements. Our minds and bodies react differently so what works for some may not for others. I once had an allergic reaction to a medicine that was so rare it didn’t have to be printed on the leaflet!

Monday, 25 April 2016

Whitby Goth Weekend – 23rd April 2016

I recently went to the April Whitby Goth Weekend, North Yorkshire. It’s held twice a year; Halloween and the anniversary of Bram Stoker’s death. Stoker was the author of Dracula who lived and based some of the story in the town. My friend and I spent the Saturday (also St George’s day) admiring the outfits of those who had dressed up and taking in the amazing scenery. If you’ve never been I highly recommend you go.

The Spring event is usually less well attended than October. In the winter the shops are decorated for Halloween, making it more popular but the advantage of April is you ‘should’ get better weather. We had sunshine all day and it was dry, although quite cold on East Cliff. I recognised a few people from previous events. They all had different outfits showing they make a real effort. It’s my favourite place to take photos. I took over 600 on the day and you can see some of them below.

I hadn’t been to the last two events so was really looking forward to it. Whitby and the surrounding area have great significance for me. My Mother’s side of the family came from North Yorkshire and they spent their summers there after they moved to Cheshire. We had fish and chips at the Magpie CafĂ© just as my Mum, Nana and Granddad used to do. My grandparents are sadly no longer with us but I always feel they are with me when I’m there.

Obviously the Dracula/Goth connection also appeals to me due to my love of horror and the paranormal. On our way back I bought a Whitby Ghost Story book from the Tourist Information ’13 Ghost Stories from Whitby’ by Michael Wray. This contains many stories from the town ghost walk, such as Old Lisa, The Whispering Ghost and the Wicked Punch and Judy Man. Make sure you buy it when you visit.

I’ve always found Whitby atmospheric and a little spooky...I’ve never been brave enough to venture there at night!

 See more photos on my Facebook page