The New Bright Lights lecture series started off this morning with the topic of memory, perception and self-delusion. Three fascinating presentations, though one really rubbed me the wrong way.
Lon Mandrake learned magic at his father’s knee, and has cultivated a sense of wonder about the natural world since childhood. As a teacher, he uses magic tricks to both instill the same sense of wonder in his students, and to get them to think scientifically. Magic tricks are followed up with encouragement to come up with hypotheses and experiments, to try to get at the truth. As he stressed during the Q&A session (in response to a question about fake psychic vultures like Sylvia Browne), he prizes openmindedness. He was a little less emphatic in condemning that evil harpy than I’d like, but sure, I’ll go along with it.
He performed a couple of amusing tricks (one of which went wrong, but the subject was a good sport), but it would have been awesome if he’d focused more on science-related demos and less on mentalism.
Rob Hadley is a hypnotist, performing on stage, working on patients in a therapy setting, as well as consulting for video game companies to make the gaming experience more immersive. He talked for a bit about the theory of hypnosis, how it was just an altered state of consciousness, with no real trick or magic to it, and then brought a few people from the audience up on stage to be hypnotised. That was kind of fun, and I for one let myself go with the “you are feeling very relaxed, your eyelids are very heavy” bit; out of the four audience members only one really went under, which looks pretty much par for the course.
The really worrying part came when he told us about a patient of his who he’d helped get rid of her budding alcoholism with a little hypnosis… and a homeopathic pill. Immediately the row behind me (all CFI skeptics) started grumbling. The grumbling got worse when Hadley defended homeopathic medecine, arguing that the pill he gave was meant to relax but he’d never told his patient that, therefore it couldn’t be the placebo effect, and concluding with “It just works.” During the Q&A one audience member really laid into him, calling out his, quote, “ignorance of medicine” and lack of ethics. Hadley got defensive (which… is understandable), but couldn’t defend his use of homeopathy except by vaguely quoting some UK studies which shows an efficacy far above the placebo effect.
While we’re talking about ethics, another audience member questioned why he consulted to make some games more immersive, thus making it more likely for players to get addicted, while also curing addictive behaviour. Hadley replied that he worked to make games more enjoyable, and while he agreed that some people would abuse them, he couldn’t be responsible for players with addictive personalities. Which I guess is fair, though still troubling.
Rob is a cognitive psychologist working in UBC’s BARLab, and his talk is all about how our perception, memory, attention, and cognition in general is way less reliable than we’d like to think. His talk was just an entertainingly presented string of studies, from the Adelson illusion to that famous video of the gorilla (a new one, actually, with more unexpected details, because too many people had seen the old one), to that guy with the severed corpus callosum (which I’d seen before, but was still damn cool). The brain’s a weird thing, and I’m glad there are people studying it like this!