Wednesday, 27 February 2008


Yesterday I heard a fascinating talk on Ted. The speaker was Janine Benyus and her topic was biomimicry. The topic relates to finding solutions in engineering areas that both improve our current systems and are naturally in tune with the environment.

With all the fun linguistics is, I've always wished I'd taken more hard sciences in the good old days. One of my favorite sources that let me tap into the fresh information in this area and is Twis. They are the ones who get me up to date on the quirks and news of medical studies and technology and manage to do it with both wit and language comprehensible to my sad lay ear. Do check these guys out. If this isn't enough to send you there, they're also the people who started the Unicorn Museum and work to spread the word about the Brights.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

There Will Be Blood

I just saw the movie and am thoroughly impressed, most of all with its music. For the first 15 minutes of the movie there is very little if not nothing said - the music drives you into the drama with its somewhat disturbing density and elevates the already high tension of the plot. The score is a very interesting contrast with the scenery of the arid landscapes of California, where one would perhaps expect a different genre of background music altogether. Yes, in this case the music can hardly be called 'background'. The composer of the score is Jonny Greeenwood, the acclaimed guitarist of Radiohead. The band is a genre in itself, but to know that this guy can also create such a dramatic mixture of avantgarde and classical elements is a sign of an emerging composer who could stand among the greatest. 'There will be blood' has received 8 Academy Awards nominations, a BAFTA award for best actor as well as a Golden Globe best actor award for Daniel Day-Lewis' part.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Another catch today

God (and Gadgets) of the Lonely?

I stumbled upon this blog today - praise the word!

by Chris

I've been hanging out with fellow atheists for a while now, and one of the more common discussions I've had when the topic of religion comes up is, why are people religious? The two most common answers I've heard from atheist friends and acquaintances are that religion is a fantasy designed to explain the mysterious and otherwise unexplainable, and that religion is a fantasy designed to make people feel less alone in the universe. As those of you who've been reading Mixing Memory for a while may have noticed, these discussions have led me to be somewhat obsessed with understanding the psychological origins of religion. While the final answer to why people are religious is a long, long way off, I can say with some confidence that the first of the two answers above is almost certainly wrong. People's religious impulses stem from much more mundane sources than the mysteriousness of the world around us. That's not to say that religion can't serve to help explain the otherwise inexplicable, or that this isn't an important purpose of religion, but it doesn't seem to be one of the fundamental or original purposes of it. Instead, it seems that religion's social functions are actually more foundational. This leads to the second answer above -- the one that says religion is around to make us feel less lonely -- seeming plausible. Most of the research on the social aspects of religion to date, however, has been on its function in communities. A paper in this month's issue of Psychological Science, however, takes a more direct look at the role of loneliness in religion.

The paper, by Epley et al.(1), starts with the hypothesis that people may use religious thinking and other examples of perceived agency (e.g., in pets or gadgets) to reduce their feelings of loneliness. Epley et al. note that, for example, that people outside of committed relationships are more likely to have personal relationships with god, that "insecure and anxious attachments to others" are associated with stronger religious beliefs, and that the death of loved ones can increase the strength of religious beliefs. That religion serves a loneliness-reducing function seems a reasonable hypothesis, then.

In their first study testing this hypothesis, Epley et al. gave participants descriptions of four "technological gadgets," and then asked them to rate the gadgets on five anthropomorphic dimensions (whether the gadget "had 'a mind of its own,' had 'intentions,' had 'free will,' had 'consciousness,' and 'experienced emotions,' p. 115) and three non-anthropomorphic dimensions ("attractive, efficient, and strong"). Then participants then completed a loneliness scale with questions like, "How often do you feel isolated from others?"

The prediction of the loneliness hypothesis is, of course, that people who score higher on the loneliness scale will give higher anthropomorphic ratings to the gadgets than lower scorers on the scale, but that the non-anthropomorphic ratings will not be influenced by high or low loneliness. And that's what they found: the correlation between anthropomorphic ratings and loneliness was quite high (r = .53), while the correlation between loneliness and non-anthropomorphic ratings was non-significant (r = .25).

This suggests that loneliness may prime agency detection, and since our hair-triggered agency-detection mechanism is thought to underlie much of religious cognition (as I've discussed before), it further suggests that loneliness may also prime religious thoughts. So, Epley et al. conducted a second study in which they first gave participants a long personality questionnaire, and then gave them predictions about their lives that they were told were based on their personality scores. Some of the participants were told things like, "You're the type who will end up alone later in life," which should induce feelings of loneliness or desire for social connections, while other participants received statements like, "You're the type of person who has rewarding relationships throughout your life" (p. 116), which should make them feel more socially connected. After reading the predictions, participants were asked to rate how much they believed in supernatural agents like ghosts, God, the devil, etc., as well as in supernatural events like miracles and curses.

Consistent with the loneliness hypothesis, participants who'd been given the loneliness-inducing predictions gave higher belief ratings to the various supernatural agents and events (mean of 4.35) than those who'd been given the socially connected predictions (3.71). Thus, the second study provides initial evidence that loneliness and religious belief may be connected.

Finally, in order to rule out a potential alternative explanation of the results of the first two studies, that negative feelings, and not loneliness specifically, may lead to religious thoughts, Epley et al. conducted a third study contrasting fear (an obviously negative feeling) and loneliness. This time, participants watched movie clips, one of which (from the movie Cast Away, poor bastards) was loneliness-inducing, one of which (from Silence of the Lambs) was fear-inducing, and one of which (from Major League, for some reason) was supposed to be non-fear or loneliness inducing. Then the participants indicated how much they believed in supernatural agents and events, as in the previous experiment. As in the second experiment, the loneliness-inducing condition caused the participants to give higher belief ratings for supernatural agents and events (though this may have been because they wanted god to help them turn off the god-awful movie clip). The fear condition did not lead to higher belief ratings relative to the control condition.

Obviously, these studies are not conclusive. For one, most of the participants come into the lab with religious beliefs, and while some of their participants did say they were not believers, Epley et al. don't break down the data by pre-experimental belief, so it's impossible to tell whether loneliness makes disbelievers more likely to think religious thoughts. It's therefore difficult to say whether loneliness is an originating impulse for religion, or if it instead simply uses existing religious thoughts. Still, this is a nice initial set of studies on the loneliness hypothesis, and I think all of those people who've told me over the years that religion is born of (existential) loneliness and alienation can feel somewhat vindicated.

1Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A, & Cacioppo, J.T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19(2), 114-120.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Sketch away!

I watched 'Sketches of Frank Gehry' a while back and just wanted to throw the film's thread a little further. It's directed by Sydney Pollack, who as a friend of Gehry's, gives the movie a pleasant casual flair. The work offers an insight into the life and mind of one of architectural geniuses of our age and bounces you from the personal insecurities to the grandness of his creativity. A must see.

Saturday, 16 February 2008


According to Dunbar, human beings are able to maintain stable social relationships with a maximum of 150 persons at a time. In Dunbar's theory this capacity of the human mind is related to the size of his or her neocortex. The 150 of the people one maintains social relations with may include high school friends or past colleagues with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again. Groups above that number usually require some sort of organised control. You can see a reflection of this in news reporting and charity advertising, among others. Why is it that somehow supporting a single child in Africa is often more appealing than the idea of donating money to a school fund or infrastructural causes, which one could deem as more important than a life of a single individual? With news of fatalities, once the number is too high, doesn't the tragedy of it all get lost among the numbers?

When looking at social networking, and in particular at Facebook, you can easily come across individuals who have a 150+ number of friends. This obviously does not include everyone they have social relationships with, since some people just refuse to do Facebook and some, like the the older generations, sometimes just have no incentive to maintain their presence in the online networking sphere. Assuming that Dunbar's theory is right, would it be possible to enhance our social networking capacities? Will sites like Facebook allow us to stretch the number 150 and allow us to create and maintain more relationships? This may seem possible, as in normal circumstances we would not have the array of information percolating about our friends' activities that FB makes available via its news feeds. Whether through status updates or news on your friends' blogs and break-ups, you're more often up to date with their situation than ever before. This availability of information stimulates a more regular reacquaintance with one's friends or colleagues, even family members. Social networks have also been effective in re-connecting people who have lost touch, whether via college networks or simple name browsing. I'm convinced that a lot of people create connections on FB just for the sake of it, regardless of having created a real relationship with a person, but perhaps more and more the friends on FB won't be just a number?

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Cat Came Back

This space is not transforming into be an animation-obsessed blog, I promise! I'll actually write something soon, but for the moment enjoy yet another piece of animation thrown at me recently...

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


I got this from my darling flatmate Vincent. A bit of 'optimism' can't hurt this morning...

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Spam please!

Am I out of my mind? Nope, just I'm doing a project on persuasion in online media. In case anyone out there feels like forwarding me their spam or pop-up window/banner images, please mail them to (not to any other of my email addresses you may have!). I would really greatly appreciate. I have to build up a sizable database of these, so please please help out if you can!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Eat Dog Cat Mouse

I saw this last night at Short & Sweet. The creator is Kwok Fung Lam. Enjoy!