Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Washing Away Sins – Whether You Know it or Not

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I am intrigued by the pervasive practice of baptism and ritual purity throughout religious history, around the world.

Before the Christian baptism that remains popular in Western culture there were ancient Babylonian and Egyptian baptism practices.  The Greek Mystery religions included baptismal rites.  For Judaism and Islam ritual cleansing has historically been of great importance as is the case with Hindu praxis as well.  A new study, however, appears to demonstrate that the psychological benefits of washing can effect an individual even when they are not consciously performing a ritual cleansing.

Spike W. S. Lee, a psychology researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and his partner Norbert Schwarz devised a test in which they lead individuals participating in the study to make a decision the participant would not be happy with.  Following the decision some of the subjects washed their hands, while others did not.  The majority of those who washed their hands exhibited behavior that suggested they were at peace with having chosen something they did not like, whereas those who did not wash exhibited the expected behavior of justifying their negative choice.

The researchers admit that there are a lot of questions still to be explored in the study, but the initial results suggest that even when the cleansing is not done as a conscious act of washing away mistakes, people enjoy the psychological benefit of the ritual.

For more details on the study, check out  Nell Greenfieldboyce’s  report at


Written by Aaron Nee

May 7, 2010 at 9:57 am

Believing Is Seeing

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Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer and colleagues have reported research that demonstrates a notable improvement in what test subjects were able to see without the use of spectacles, contact lenses, or any physical changes to the subjects eyes.

The method of improving vision was no more than using suggestion to make the subject believe they were able to see more than they previously could.  Participants in the study who were predisposed to believing their vision could be enhanced showed particularly strong improvement in what they were able to see.

Another study conducted at MIT demonstrated similar results.

For more on the psychology of vision, see’s article.

Written by Aaron Nee

May 5, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Televised Evening With The Dead

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A while back Derren Brown hosted a televised séance on the UK’s Channel 4.  Unfortunately for those of us in the US, Channel 4’s content can be hard to come by.  Most of the time we have to hope someone will post the show on YouTube or Google Video.  Lucky for us, someone has done just that.  Derren Brown’s séance is available to view in its entirety on YouTube, so catch it before it is removed.

An outspoken skeptic of all things paranormal, Brown has on more than one occasion recreated miracles and psychic wonders using, “Psychology, misdirection, magic and showmanship.”  Despite stating openly that he was using psychological manipulation, cold reading and other trickery, the séance participants managed to get royally spooked, as did viewers who called into the show testifying to paranormal happenings in their home while watching the séance.

In the tradition of master magician James Randi, Derren Brown uses his skills to demonstrate how the frauds work their wonders, or at least shows that the marvels can be recreated without appear to the supernatural.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Written by Aaron Nee

April 21, 2010 at 1:20 pm

The Nothing That Really Does Cure Anything (almost)

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On a similar note to the previous post regarding homeopathy, here are some interesting resources on the mysterious and wonderful placebo effect.

In 2002, the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute published study results that revealed a surprising difference between the patients receiving a placebo and the patients on the medication being tested.  Of those receiving the actual medication, a little more than fifty percent experienced a reduction in their depression symptoms, while thirty eight percent of the placebo recipients also saw an improvement in their symptoms.  The surprising revelation in the study was the fact that those patients who responded to the placebo experienced improved brain activity in a region of the brain that none of the other patients experienced, whether they were on the medication or placebo.  In fact those on the actual medication experienced diminished activity in that region of the brain.

You can hear a brief report on the study here.

The full text of the study is also available.
Radio Lab did a show on placebos that, as always, was great.  If you listen to only one thing linked to on this post, it should be Radio Lab.

If you are not all placeboed out, then you may enjoy listening to the very interest, uncut interview between Richard Dawkins and Professor of Psychology, Nicholas Humphry, in which placebos are discussed in their conversation about alternative medicine.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Written by Aaron Nee

April 17, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Manipulating the Manipulators

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Derren Brown devises an elaborate demonstration of how subliminal marketing influences even the masters of manipulation.

Embedding is disabled on the clip, so you will have to follow the URL to see it –

Brown performed the same demonstration in his US version of the program.  You can see the slightly modified US demonstration here,

I previously posted an interesting interview with Brown conducted by Richard Dawkins, which is also worth checking out.

Knowing How We Know What We Know

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If you are interested in understanding how we understand things, then you will probably enjoy a podcast called “Brain Science”.  Here is a little blurb about the host and the podcast from the show’s site:

Dr. Campbell is an experienced emergency physician with a long-standing interest in mind-body medicine, the brain, and consciousness. In this podcast she shares recent discoveries from the world of neuroscience in a way that people of all backgrounds can enjoy. Dr. Campbell believes that understanding how the brain works gives us insight into what makes us human. She is also committed to showing how the scientific method has unravelled many long-standing mysteries.

Written by Aaron Nee

March 21, 2010 at 2:35 am

Jonathan Haidt: The real difference between liberals and conservatives

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Psychologist Jonathan Haidt spoke at TED on his theories about the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.   Haidt runs the website, where he offers resources for further study on moral psychology.  More information on the talk and Haidt’s bio is available at the TED website.

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Written by Aaron Nee

December 6, 2008 at 5:19 am