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Let’s (try to) get serious about silliness


August is known as the “silly season” in the media in the United States and the United Kingdom, as newspaper editors faced with legislators all gone on holiday struggle in vain to fill their pages and resort to, well, silly stories.

So in that exalted tradition, today’s column will consider some things that are often revered by those very silly people in the New Age movement: astrology, hypnosis and out-of-body experiences.

Let’s get astrology out of the way first. In fact it is so silly that I can barely bring myself to write the word. The following story isn’t really about astrology, but I expect some crackpots will look to it to support astrological predictions. I’ll help them: I predict that children born in the northern hemisphere summer — especially those under the signs of Cancer and Leo — will be more likely to be short-sighted when they grow up.

According to a survey of 300,000 young people in the eye journal Opthalmology , those born in June and July were 24 percent more likely to become myopic than winter babies — those born in December and January.

Have cosmic forces from the arrangement of the stars and planets caused the effect?

Nonsense, says Michael Belkin of Tel Aviv University’s Goldschleger Eye Research Institute in Israel, where the study was done. The increased chance of shortsightedness is probably down to exposure to the bright natural light of summer as a young child, he says.

“We know that sunlight affects the pineal gland and we have indications that melatonin, through other compounds, is involved in regulating eye length,” says Belkin. “More sun equals less melatonin, equals a longer eye — which is short sighted.”

But for those of you who are short-sighted, Belkin has a consolation: People who wear glasses are more intelligent.

“It is not a myth at all that people who wear pop-bottle glasses are smarter. They tend to be,” he says.

So much for astrology. What about hypnosis? This is not at all as silly as thinking that the stars influence whether you’ll get a pay rise next week. In fact it is not really silly at all, but its portrayal in popular culture (“Look into my eyes . . . you are feeling sleepy . . . you will obey my command . . .”) does give it a bad name. Some scientists dispute whether there is even such a thing.

Now, however, doctors at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York have demonstrated that using hypnosis before surgery for breast cancer reduces the amount of anesthetic used in the operation. The pain reported by the patients is reduced, and the time and the cost of the procedure is also lower.

The doctors conducted a clinical trial with 200 women awaiting surgery. In half the group, the women were given 15 minutes of hypnosis by a psychologist, while the other half just chatted with a psychologist. The hypnosis session gave suggestions for relaxation and pleasant visual imagery. The patients were also advised hypnotically on how to reduce pain, nausea and fatigue, and were told how to use hypnosis on their own.

Hypnotized patients required less anesthesia and reported less pain, nausea, fatigue, discomfort and emotional upset after surgery. They spent less time in surgery (almost 11 minutes less), and their surgical costs were reduced by about $773 per patient, mainly due to the time savings.

The researchers then compared the use of pain medications and sedatives during surgery, as well as the levels of pain and other side effects reported afterward.

Commenting on the research in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, David Spiegel of Stanford University School of Medicine in California says that it has taken us a century and a half to rediscover the fact that the mind has something to do with pain — and can be a powerful tool in controlling it.

“It is now abundantly clear that we can retrain the brain to reduce pain: ‘float rather than fight,’ ” Spiegel writes.

The Mount Sinai doctors say they hope their study will increase the use of hypnosis in surgery, which would be a fitting outcome: the term hypnosis was coined by a 19th-century Scottish doctor, James Baird, who also wanted to use it as a surgical anesthetic.

As many as one in 10 people claim to have had an out-of-body experience (OBE). It’s something else that regularly attracts silly-season stories — but which is generally dismissed as the workings of an “overactive imagination.” Now, though, there is a scientific explanation.

Henrik Ehrsson of University College London got volunteers to wear a virtual-reality headset, which showed a live video feed from cameras placed beside each other 2 meters behind the participant’s head. The participant sees these as one stereoscopic 3-D image, so they see their own back from the perspective of someone sitting behind them.

Ehrsson then moved a plastic rod to a point just below the cameras, while the participant’s real chest was simultaneously touched at the corresponding level. Participants reported feeling they were located back where the cameras had been placed, watching a body belonging to someone else.

The creation of this perceptual illusion stems from an idea that Ehrsson says he had while a student. He wondered what would happen to the self if you could effectively move your eyes to another part of the room, just a few meters away, so you could observe yourself from an outside perspective.

Would the self “follow” the eyes or stay in the body?

He’s now answered that: The self follows the eyes.

It reminds me of an experiment the physicist Richard Feynman did when in a sensory deprivation tank. There he was able to move his center of self from the customary position behind the eyes, to other parts of his body — his arm, his feet and, yes, his penis.

Ernest Hemingway had an OBE when hit by shrapnel, and many religiously inclined people have attributed them to “spiritual” phenomena.

Ehrsson says his technique now enables out-of-body experience to be created in healthy people. “It’s a very exciting development, and has implications for a range of disciplines from neuroscience to theology.”

It’s not often you get scientific explanations of silly season stories. Normal service will resume in the next column.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima Mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life)”; price ¥1,500.