Category Archives: Strange therapies

A poor sense of rumour: A brief look at ‘addiction to gossip’

On Tuesday morning this week I was on my way into work and I picked up a copy of the Metro newspaper and on page five the headline was [Tory MP Michael] “Gove is addicted to gossip”. Obviously the article piqued my interest because of the word “addicted” in the title of the article and I decided there and then that I would write a blog on the topic. I ought to add that even before researching the topic, I did not expect to find any empirical evidence of anyone being genuinely addicted to gossip.

According to the Wikipedia entry, “gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others…The term is sometimes used to specifically refer to the spreading of ‘dirt’ and misinformation as (for example) through excited discussion of scandals”. I suppose all of us have engaged in gossiping, and now in the age of social media there’s probably a lot of you reading this who do it on a daily basis. Because of the social media, sharing gossip has become faster and more widespread. Rumours about celebrities can be spread online extremely fast. There is a fair amount of research into the psychology of gossip both in everyday life and of its effect in the workplace. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, Dr. Robin Dunbar has noted in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language that it is a form of social grooming that helps social bonding among large groups of people and that language evolved for gossip to occur.

Unsurprisingly I couldn’t find any academic research that’s been carried out into gossip as an addiction although I did locate a number of online articles on the topic written by both journalists and psychologists. And there’s no shortage of diagnostic quizzes and tips on how to stop gossiping (for instance, you can visit the ‘Are you addicted to gossip?’ webpage and answer the questions, read advice on ‘How to End a Celebrity Gossip Addiction or look at the ‘6 Steps to Stop Gossiping + Why It Matters webpage).

Although I didn’t locate any empirical research on addiction to gossip, the concept did make a fleeting appearance in a few academic book chapters I read. For instance, in a 2008 book chapter entitled ‘Consuming gossip’, Dr. Vissia Ita Yulianto looked at the discourses that women use to justify gossiping. Yulianto noted:

One important finding from my discussions with female viewers is that, when asked if celebrity gossip shows contain messages, they remark that it gives them information about celebrities. They consider ‘gossip’ to be ‘information’. This may be because they felt the need to rationalize their addiction to gossip, and to legitimatize it by referring to it as a source of ‘information’.”

Here, Yulianto uncritically assumes her participants have an “addiction to gossip” although she would no doubt argue she is using the word ‘addiction’ in a metaphorical sense rather than from a psychological and/or clinical perspective. In another book chapter, Dr. Andrea Timár, a literary studies scholar examining the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and mentions (in passing) that the “craving for gossip is ever-demanding”. These few simple words include both a well-known symptom of addiction (i.e., ‘craving’) as well as describing a feature of addiction (i.e., ‘ever-demanding’).

One of the more interesting articles I read was by Kiran Relangi on the Purple Room Healing website. He claims that gossip is the “ugly addiction” and that it is a “repeated and ritualistic abuse of knowledge and of our own personalities. Gossip turns us from polite conversation makers into rumour-thirsty vampires scandalizing private lives for personal satisfaction”. Relango does appear to see gossip as something addictive and that “like any addiction, we only gossip because we do not want to be reminded of our insecurities, failures and voids within. By engaging in gossip we not only divert our minds from introspection, we also create such falsehoods that will make us feel better and safe”. He then lists what he sees as the four different functions for gossip in our lives (including ‘gossip as an addiction’). These four reasons are taken verbatim from his article:

  • Gossip as a defence mechanism: It feels good to ‘prove’ another human is much inferior to us. That feeling creates a temporary and partial amnesia for our own shortcomings and insecurities. Instead of dealing with our own ugliness we create even uglier pictures of others around so we can feel better.
  • Gossip as an emotional vent: The persons we gossip about quickly become our vents. Whenever we are upset about anything, we find ourselves engaging vehement and slanderous gossip smearing somebody’s image with shit in our lives.
  • Gossip for conversation: Talk ill of a commonly disliked person so we can bond closer to fellow gossipers. Any bond built on gossip is likely to sever because of gossip.
  • Gossip as an addiction: Count how many times a week you engage yourself in ‘discussing’ affairs of a third person. You may feel you have control over what you speak and how much you speak. But strangely you never feel motivated to stop speaking. That’s an addiction. Gossip as an addiction is a ‘sweet’ cover for our failures and the ugliness we carry within”.

An online article (‘Are you addicted to gossip?’) on the Inner Self website by Dr. Richard Michael goes as far to say that gossip is the world’s favorite pastime. He asserts:

“How and why has the world become so addicted to gossip? The reason is that those that gossip and who listen to gossip do not view themselves as being important, but they do view others as being important…The problem with listening to gossip is that you do not just listen to it with your ears or see it with your eyes, you hear and see it with your heart, and that eventually wounds the heart. The heart becomes wounded because you have temporarily filled an empty space within it with someone other than yourself and your own individual importance. Therefore, you have filled that space with words and sights that you heard, read, and saw about others. This leads to a longing to learn more about this person, much like an addiction”.

In an article entitled ‘Addiction to gossip’ by Dr. Margaret Paul, she responds an ‘agony aunt’ type way to a man writing about his “unhappy” mother who uses talking about other people’s problems as a way of socially bonding with her. In this situation, Dr. Paul responds by saying the mother is likely using her addiction to gossip as a way of connecting with her son and avoiding her own emptiness and aloneness that is the result of her self-abandonment”. In response to another woman who cannot work out why she and her friends constantly (and “harshly”) judge other people that they know, Dr. Paul responds by saying “it feels good to our ego wounded self to feel like we are one up to these people, and it gives us something to connect about”. She then goes on to claim that:

“Gossip is like any other addiction – it is a way of avoiding responsibility for your feelings, and can be used by the wounded self as a way to connects with others. The wounded self has numerous ways of trying to connect with others other than being truly authentic and caring, such as drinking together, smoking pot together, ridiculing others together, or even using things like food to get a sense of closeness without having to be authentic. Gossip is another one of the ways the wounded self tries to connect and get filled up externally when you are abandoning yourself”.

Another online article I came across was a hypnosis site claiming that ‘gossip addiction’ can be treated. I don’t doubt that constantly gossiping can sometimes result in negative detrimental effects for the individual but that does not mean it is an addiction. The site spells out how gossip addicts can be helped: 

“If your mouth sometimes runs away with you and you hurt others (or yourself) by your gossiping, spilling the beans and divulging other people’s secrets – then this ‘Stop Gossiping’ session is for you…Gossip can seem harmless. A certain amount of sharing of information can be a way of bonding people together in groups…The trouble is that gossip spreads. Sometimes faster than wildfire. And because the story doing the rounds can get distorted…when it finally gets back to the one who was being talked about it can seem malicious. Even if the originator had no such intention. So even so-called ‘harmless gossip’ can ruin reputations – not just the reputation of the subject of the gossip, but your reputation too, if you were the one who started the gossip, or helped to spread it…It’s as if gossiping has become an addiction – as if you just can’t get enough of it…Using potent imagery to speak to your deepest self, ‘Stop Gossiping’ will help you enter a transformative state where you can untangle yourself from the short term buzz of gossiping”

Although I have argued that it is theoretically possible to become addicted to anything if there are constant rewards and reinforcements, I have yet to come across anything (even anecdotal) to suggest that anyone has ever been addicted to gossip.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Drexler, P. (2014). Why we love to gossip. Psychology Today, August 12. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201408/why-we-love-gossip

Dunbar, R. (1998). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Engle, G. (2015). The psychology of gossip: Why talking sh*t makes you happy. Elite Daily, March 20. Located at: http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/gossip-born-to-talk-sht/972434/

Ludden, D. (2015). Why you were born to gossip. Psychology Today, February 27. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-apes/201502/why-you-were-born-gossip

Michael, R.C. (1998). Are you addicted to gossip? Inner Self. Located at: http://innerself.com/content/creating-realities/4116-addicted-to-gossip.html

Paul, M. (2010). Addiction to gossip. Mental Health Matters, November 9. Located at: http://mental-health-matters.com/addiction-to-gossip/

Relangi, K. (2012). Gossip, the ugly addiction. Purple Room Healing, June 12. Located at: https://deadmanswill.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/gossip-the-ugly-addiction/

Tiger, R. (2015). Celebrity gossip blogs and the interactive construction of addiction. New Media & Society, 17(3), 340-355.

Wikipedia (2016). Gossip. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gossip

Yulianto, V.I. (2008). Consuming gossip: A re-domestication of Indonesian women. In Heryanto, A. (Ed.). Popular Culture in Indonesia: Fluid Identities in Post-Authoritarian Politics (pp.130-142). New York: Routledge.

Tales of the unexpected: 10 bad habits that sometimes do us good (Part 1)

All of us have bad habits, and all of us from time to time feel guilty about these habits. But there are some bad habits – at least when carried out in moderation – that might actually have benefits for psychological and/or physical wellbeing. Most bad habits help change our mood state and reduce stress (at least in the very short-term) but tend to become less helpful the more they are engaged in. Some of these bad habits turn into addictions where the short-term benefits are outweighed by the long-term costs. However, there are many activities that can sometimes have unexpected benefits and five of these are outlined in this blog. The next five bad habits will be in my next blog.

(1) Fidgeting helps burn calories

While fidgeting might be annoying for individuals and those around them, it is an activity that expends energy and burns calories. Fidgeting is one of a number of activities (along with walking, gardening, typing, tidying up, etc.) that are known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). In basic terms, NEAT is any activity that is not eating, sleeping, or sporting exercise. A number of studies carried out by obesity expert Dr. James Levine at the US Mayo Clinic (Arizona, US) have shown that individuals who fidget burn up about 350kcal a day. This is because fidgeting speeds up an individual’s metabolism by stimulating neurochemicals in the body thus increasing the ability to convert body fat into energy. So, if you are a compulsive foot tapper, an excessive thumb twiddler, or a restless doodler, just remember that all of these activities burn calories.

(2) Chewing gum helps boost thinking and alertness

Watching people chew gum is not a pretty site but if English football managers are anything to go by, chewing gum appears to be a stress relieving activity. In fact, there appear to appear to be many cognitive benefits of chewing gum. Dr. Kin-ya Kubo and colleagues in the book Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders noted that chewing gum immediately before performing a cognitive task increases blood oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (important brain structures involved in learning and memory), thereby improving task performance. Dr. Kubo argues that chewing gum may therefore be a drug-free and simple method of helping those with senile dementia and stress-related disorders that are often associated with cognitive dysfunction. Another study by Dr. Yoshiyuki Hirano and colleagues showed that chewing gum boosts thinking and alertness, and that reaction times among chewers were 10% faster than non-chewers. The research team also reported that up to eight areas of the brain are affected by chewing (most notably the areas concerning attention and movement). As Professor Andy Smith (Cardiff University, UK) neatly summed up: “The effects of chewing on reaction time are profound. Perhaps football managers arrived at the idea of chewing gum by accident, but they seem to be on the right track”. 

(3) Playing video games helps relieve pain

Many individuals that do not play video games view the activity as a complete waste of time and potentially addictive. While excessive video game playing may cause problems in a minority of individuals, there is lots of scientific evidence that playing video games can have many beneficial effects. For instance, a number of studies have shown that children with cancer who play video games after chemotherapy take less pain killing medication. Video games have also been used as pain relieving therapy for other medical conditions such as burns victims and those with back pain. This is because playing video games is an engaging and engrossing activity that means the player cannot think about anything else but playing the game (and is what psychologists refer to as a ‘cognitive distractor task’). Pain has a large psychological component and individuals experience less pain if the person is engaged in an activity that takes up all their cognitive mind space. As well as being a pain reliever, there are also many studies showing that playing video games increase hand-eye co-ordination, increase reaction times, and have educational learning benefits.

(4) Eating snot helps strengthen the immune system (maybe)

How does it make you feel when you see someone picking their nose and then eating what they have found? Disgust? Contempt? Amused? In 2008, Dr Friedrich Bischinger, an Austrian lung specialist, claimed that picking your nose and eating it was good for you. He claimed that people who pick their noses with their fingers were healthy, happier and probably better in tune with their bodies than those who didn’t. Dr. Bischinger believes that eating the dry remains of what you pull out of your nose is a great way of strengthening the body’s immune system. He explained that in terms of the immune system, the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine. He said that “people who pick their nose and eat it get a natural boost to their immune system for free. I would recommend a new approach where children are encouraged to pick their nose. It is a completely natural response and medically a good idea as well”. He went on to suggest that if anyone was worried about what other people think, they should pick their noses privately if they want to get the benefits.  This view is also shared by Dr. Scott Napper, a biochemist at the University of Saskatchewan. He theorises that hygiene improvement has led to the increase in allergies and auto-immune disorders and that eating snot may boost the immune system by ingesting small and harmless amounts of germs into the body. The same theory has also been applied to another bad habit – biting fingernails – because again, the act of biting nails introduces germs directly into a person’s orifices.

(5) Daydreaming helps problem solving

Daydreaming is something that can occupy up to one-third of our waking lives and is often viewed as a sign of laziness, inattentiveness and/or procrastination. However, scientific research has shown that the ‘executive network’ in our brain is highly active when we daydream. A study carried out by Professor Kalina Christoff and colleagues and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found activity in numerous brain regions while daydreaming including areas associated with complex problem solving. These brain regions were more active while daydreaming compared to routine tasks. It is believed that when an individual uses conscious thought they can become too rigid and limited in their thinking. The findings suggest that daydreaming is an important cognitive state where individuals turn their attention from immediate tasks to unconsciously think about problems in their lives. Christoff says that “when you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal – say reading a book or paying attention in class – but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships”. In addition to this, Dr. Eric Klinger of the University of Minnesota has argued that daydreaming also serves an evolutionary purpose. When individuals are engaged on one task, daydreaming can trigger reminders of other, concurrent goals so that they do not lose sight of them.

Part 2 of this article will be in the next blog.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., & Schooler, J.W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 8719-872

Fox, K.C., Nijeboer, S., Solomonova, E., Domhoff, G.W., & Christoff, K. (2013). Dreaming as mind wandering: evidence from functional neuroimaging and first-person content reports. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 42. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00412.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Hirano, Y., Obata, T., Takahashi, H., Tachibana, A., Kuroiwa, D., Takahashi, T., … & Onozuka, M. (2013). Effects of chewing on cognitive processing speed. Brain and Cognition, 81, 376-381.

Kato, P. M., Cole, S. W., Bradlyn, A. S., & Pollock, B. H. (2008). A video game improves behavioral outcomes in adolescents and young adults with cancer: A randomized trial. Pediatrics, 122, E305-E317.

Klinger, E. (2009). Daydreaming and fantasizing: Thought flow and motivation. In Markman, K. D., Klein, W.P., & Suhr, J.A. (Eds.), Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation (pp. 225-239). New York: Psychology Press.

Klinger, E., Henning, V. R., & Janssen, J. M. (2009). Fantasy-proneness dimensionalized: Dissociative component is related to psychopathology, daydreaming as such is not. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 506-510.

Kubo, K. Y., Chen, H., & Onozuka, M. (2013). The relationship between mastication and cognition. In Wang, Z. & Inuzuka (Eds.), Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders. InTech. Located at: http://www.intechopen.com/books/senescence-and-senescence-related-disorders

Levine, J.A. (2004). Nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): environment and biology. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 286, E675-E685.

Levine, J.A., Melanson, E. L., Westerterp, K. R., & Hill, J.O. (2001). Measurement of the components of nonexercise activity thermogenesis. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281, E670-E675.

Levine, J.A., Schleusner, S. J., & Jensen, M.D. (2000). Energy expenditure of nonexercise activity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72, 1451-1454.

Redd, W.H., Jacobsen, P.B., DieTrill, M., Dermatis, H., McEvoy, M., & Holland, J.C. (1987). Cognitive-attentional distraction in the control of conditioned nausea in pediatric cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 391-395.

Reichlin, L., Mani, N., McArthur, K., Harris, A.M., Rajan, N., & Dacso, C.C. (2011). Assessing the acceptability and usability of an interactive serious game in aiding treatment decisions for patients with localized prostate cancer. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 188-201.

Vasterling, J., Jenkins, R.A., Tope, D.M., & Burish, T.G. (1993). Cognitive distraction and relaxation training for the control of side effects due to cancer chemotherapy. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 16, 65-80.

Wighton, K. (2013). From biting your nails to burping and even eating in bed: The bad habits that can be GOOD for you! Daily Mail, April 8. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2305953/Bad-habits-From-biting-nails-burping-eating-bed-The-bad-habits-GOOD-you.html

Occult figure: David Bowie and living life at the extremes

Since David Bowie’s death earlier this year, I’ve already written two articles on the psychology of Bowie (which you can read here and here) but this article takes a look at the more extreme aspects of Bowie’s life (excluding his various addictions which I briefly examined in my previous pieces). As a long-time David Bowie fan I’ve been meaning to write this particular blog for a long time but just never got around to it. I had made lots of notes taken from various Bowie biographies (see ‘Further reading’ below) but Dr. Dean Ballinger (University of Waikato) recently beat me to the punch by publishing a similar article to the one I had planned in the March 2016 issue of the Fortean Times.

During Bowie’s five decades in music he has been interviewed on almost every conceivable topic but it’s always the interviews about his most extreme and esoteric subjects that have caught my eye whether it concerned his religious and spiritual beliefs, his political views, or his moral philosophy. I’ve always looked for hidden meanings in his lyrics and taken the view that his lyrics provide an insight into his personality as much as anything else that I have seen or read about him in the print and broadcast media. Like most other hardcore Bowie fans, I have been poring over the lyrics of his final studio album Blackstar now knowing that he wrote and recorded it while suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. The album is arguably his most cryptic and mysterious since the classics of the mid- to late-1970s (Station To Station, Low and “Heroes”) – although I also love 1.Outside and Heathen both lyrically and musically.

Looking back, it was probably the Station To Station title track that really made me wonder what was going on in Bowie’s head. Although Bowie says he was “out of his gourd” on cocaine at the time (and has little recollection of recording the album), the lyrics (as a teenager) made no sense to me at all (Here are we/One magical movement/From Kether to Malkuth/There are you/You drive like a demon/From station to station”). I had no idea that Kether (“the crown” – divine will or pure light) and Malkuth (“the kingship” – the nurturing receptacle of the light) originated from Kabbalah (an esoteric school of thought rooted in Judaism) representing two of 10 sephirots (sometimes spelled ‘sefirots’ and meaning ’emanations’ or ‘attributes’) in the Tree of Life.

During his cocaine-fuelled days, Bowie rarely slept and filled his time reading books. Not only books about Kabbalah but also books on the occult (a number of books by Aleister Crowley; Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians; Israel Regardie’s books on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), on the symbolic obsessions of Nazism (most notably Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), and defensive magic and tarot cards (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense) as well as more general books on the secret history of Christianity, UFOs, political conspiracies, and numerology. It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s 1976 persona (‘The thin white duke’ in his ‘Station To Station’ lyric) is almost certainly taken from Crowley’s erotic poetry (“The return of the thin white duke making sure white stains” from the 1898 book White Stains).

It’s been claimed by Chris O’Leary (author of the excellent Rebel Rebel and founder of the Pushing Ahead of The Dame website) that “Bowie’s immersion in Kabbalah was part of an overarching spiritual quest that took him from Tibetan Buddhism (he almost joined a monastery in the late 1960s, until his teacher told him that he’d make a better musician than monk) to Christian mysticism, occult worship and a flirtation with neo-Nazi imagery that nearly derailed his career when it was discovered that he collected Nazi memorabilia”. I hadn’t realised that Bowie had made reference to the occult in earlier songs such as ‘Quicksand’ (The Order of the Golden Dawn – a late 19th/early 20th century organisation devoted to the practice of occult, metaphysical, and paranormal phenomena, and the root of more traditional modern day occult practices such as Thelema and Wicca) as well as Tibetan Buddhism (more specifically his use of the word ‘Bardo’ in the song – the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth).

Bowie’s interest in Buddhism and Tibet dates back to the 1960s as evidenced by songs such as ‘Silly Boy Blue’ (first demoed in 1965). In an interview by Bowie with the Melody Maker (24 February, 1966) notes:

I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks, and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous—and it’s said they live for centuries…As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though”.

Chris O’Leary also noted that:

“Bowie’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism wasn’t a sudden trendy affectation—he had begun exploring the religion when he was in his mid-teens, first inspired by reading Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet, and he eventually met and befriended the Tibetan lama Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, who was exiled in London. Bowie even fantasized about becoming a Buddhist monk – cropping his hair and dyeing it black, wearing saffron robes and even changing his skin color (he’d have to settle for becoming Ziggy). Buddhism was an early influence in his songs: he had meant for the backing chorus of his single ‘Baby Loves That Way’ to sound like chanting monks.”

Bowie didn’t appear to have strong religious beliefs. In an interview in 1997 he noted that there was an “abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism…what I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with 
the way I live and my demise” but in relation to thoughts on his own mortality he said “I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you”. In addition to his spiritual leanings, Dr. Ballinger in his 2016 Fortean Times article goes as far to say that occult and paranormal themes constituted an “integral dimension” of Bowie’s career. Bowie clearly had an interest in aliens, science fiction, and the paranormal as reflected in many of his singles dating back to ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) through to ‘Loving The Alien’ (1985) and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1996) (as well as many album tracks and his acting breakthrough as an alien in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth). Dr. Ballinger also argued that:

“Bowie was also reading upon esoteric subjects and alternative ideas in a relatively in-depth way beyond fashionable name dropping is made clear by the songs 
on his fourth album, Hunky Dory (1971).
 The jaunty pop of ‘Oh You Pretty Things!’ is belied by lyrics that evoke a rather sinister picture of spiritual evolution, in which the listener is asked to ‘make way’ for ‘the coming race’ of ‘homo superior’ Nietszchean super children…The ‘coming race’ is also a probable nod to the Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name that became a staple of the ‘Vril’ mythos associated with occult-minded Nazis, a subject that would have a rather negative influence on Bowie in the near future. More overt is the ballad ‘Quicksand’, in which Bowie expounds a New Age manifesto – ‘I’m not a prophet or a Stone Age man/Just a mortal with potential of a superman’ – with reference to the Western magical tradition (‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn/Immersed in Crowley’s uniform/of imagery), [and] The Tibetan Book of the Dead (‘You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo’)”.

Bowie wasn’t the first musician to use The Tibetan Book of the Dead as inspiration for lyrics. More famously, John Lennon used it for The Beatles classic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the final track on the 1966 Revolver album (something I forgot to mention in my previous article on Bowie and The Beatles). However, John Lennon based his lyrics after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. (And while I’m going off on tangents, I just wanted to mention that Alpert’s most well known book Be Here Now just happens to be the title of (Beatle-loving) Oasisthird album).

Dr. Ballinger also makes the argument that in Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars there were “evident resonances between occultism and his musical career” and that he drew inspiration from a wide range of esoteric cultural influences to source “stimulating ideas and imagery to explore in lyrics, costumes and videos”. Ballinger also claims that Bowie’s work at this point of his career had a more integral relationship with the theory and practice of magic and occultism:

“Parsing Crowley’s legacy, one of the key aspects of magic is the transformation of the self (and, possibly, the wider social reality) through acts that focus the imagination/will towards such change, such acts including sex, drug consumption, meditation, and creative performance (i.e., rituals). In this vein Bowie can be considered a distinctly magical musician whose whole career revolved around the transformation of the self and the wider culture through the ‘ritual performances’
of rock music, such as concerts, recordings, and videos. In his most influential period
 of the 1970s, Bowie created personae (such 
as Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke) and undertook musical experiments (the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the avant-garde/krautrock/funk synthesis of the ‘Berlin trilogy’) that in turn transformed rock culture by inspiring scores of other artists. The gender-bending that was a notable aspect of Bowie’s personae in this period (for example, the androgynous cover photo for The Man Who Sold The World (1970) or the 1979 video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’), and the cultivation of bisexual overtones in his lyrics and performance (‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ as an account of bisexual angst), are also interesting to consider in relation to Crowley’s emphasis on sexuality as a core component of magical transformation”.

Like some of the best music by The Beatles, some of the best music made by Bowie was while he was using drugs excessively (often described by his biographers as a ‘cocaine-induced psychosis’). Bowie himself claims that in 1975 he was in poor mental and physical health but ironically he was producing some of the best music (and acting) of his career. However, Bowie’s cocaine addiction has also been used as an excuse for his behaviour during the 1976 period where he flirted with Nazi occultism and made the claim that the UK would benefit from a fascist leader (“I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad”). Many musicians have said they are interested in Nazi imagery and fashion (e.g., Bryan Ferry) and others have collected Nazi memorabilia (e.g., Lemmy) but these interests do not mean such people are Nazi-loving or fascists.

Bowie’s esoteric and occultist interests appear to subside as his career progressed and it wasn’t until his final album that Bowie appeared to be using music (and the accompanying promo videos) in a symbolic way for people to re-interpret his music as a cryptic death note to all his hardcore acolytes (of which I would include myself). Unless Bowie left any explanation for his final seven songs, we can only speculate. However, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of Dr. Ballinger who has done a better job than I could ever do:

“The Blackstar album has seen Bowie go out with a distinctly occult bang…As every prior Bowie album cover has featured a portrait, the five-pointed ‘black star’ of 
this one is presumably meant to represent Bowie too – perhaps in his ultimate persona as spirit (the five-pointed star being a classic Hermetic/Gnostic symbol of ‘man as microcosm’, with the contradictory image of a ‘black star’ also evoking a koan or the alchemical union of opposites). The creepy atmosphere conjured up by the lyrics of the title track – “In the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle/On the day of execution/Only women stand and smile” – is successfully evoked in the video for the song. Bowie 
is depicted as preacher of some dark 21st century faith, brandishing a Blackstar bible among acolytes whose spasmodic ‘dancing’ suggests a state of possession. A reading of the imagery here as analogous to Crowley and his Book of the Law is perhaps apt; director Johan Renck, who designed the videos with Bowie, has mentioned Crowley as a reference point. Some kind of Hermetic/Gnostic subtext about eternity, spirit and the flesh is further implied in the imagery of the video’s other ‘storyline’, in which the shade of a dead astronaut – Bowie himself, in his formative Major Tom persona? – floats up into a ‘black star’ of eternity, before, in a possibly Orphic reference, leaving behind his bejewelled skull for ritual veneration by a sect of mutant women. Where the esoteric overtones of the ‘Blackstar’ video are eerie, those of the video for ‘Lazarus’ are poignant. Bowie plays himself as a patient in a hospital bed, whose closet is a portal from which appears a double who is seemingly meant to signify his essential spirit. This figure is not garbed as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke
 or any of Bowie’s most famous personae, but in the striped black jumpsuit in which he undertook the famous occult photo shoot for Station to Station, in which he is depicted drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the wall. That Bowie chose this costume for his valedictory performance suggests he was giving a subtle nod to the deep, lasting metaphysical significance that this period had upon the rest of his life”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ballinger, D. (2016). The mage who sold the world. Fortean Times, 338, 28-33.

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Doggett, P. (2012). The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. London: Vintage.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

O’Leary, C. (2016). Rebel Rebel. Alresford: Zero Books.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Rogovoy, S. (2013). The secret Jewish history of David Bowie. Forward.com, April 16. Located at: http://forward.com/culture/174551/the-secret-jewish-history-of-david-bowie/

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

Is laughter is the best medicine? A brief look at the Charlie Chaplin “obsession” in Adipur

In previous blogs I have examined such phenomena as Celebrity Worship Syndrome, celebrity religions such as the Church of [Diego] Maradona, and strange therapies (such as caning therapy). Another strange form of therapy and celebrity worship that I came across was when I appeared as the resident psychologist on the Forbidden television series (on the Discovery Channel). The story on the show concerned the residents of the Indian town of Adipur (in the Kutch district of Gujurat, many of who are descended from migrants from Pakistan who moved there in the 1940s) who are “obsessed” with the English comic actor Charlie Chaplin. As a 2010 BBC story noted:

“In the rising heat of a flaming Indian summer, more than 100 people have gathered in a small town in Gujarat to celebrate Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. There are girls and boys, men and women. They are young and old, fit and feeble. They have all trooped out into the streets of Adipur dressed up like the legendary actor’s tramp – toothbrush moustache, bowler hat, scruffy black suit, cane. What binds them is a love of Chaplin’s cinema – most are members of the Charlie Circle, a local fan club which has been celebrating the actor’s birthday every April since 1973. Out on the streets, a colourful party fuses Chaplin worship with Indian song and dance. Scores of impersonators imitate the tramp’s bow-legged dance walk and waddle with mixed results. Then they begin jumping up and down to Bollywood songs sung by a portly local singer and pumped out from crackling speakers strung on top of a rickety mobile music cart…A couple of camel-drawn carts bring up the rear. One is packed with toddler Chaplin impersonators. In the other, a small statue and a big poster of the actor are ‘worshipped’, complete with a chanting Hindu priest and burning joss sticks”.

As I found out in the Forbidden production notes when I was interviewed for this story, one of the local doctors (Mr. Ashok Aswani, an Ayurvedic practitioner) who started up the ‘Charlie Circle Club’ (CCC). The members of the CCC are dedicated to Chaplin and his philosophy in life as depicted in his films”. Mr. Aswani prescribes all his depressed patients with a Chaplin DVD and encourages them to come along to his Chaplin group sessions where they watch films such as enjoy special screenings of Chaplin’s movies like Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, Limelight, The Kid, Countess in Hong Kong, and The Great Dictator. According to Wikipedia, Ayurveda means “life-knowledge” and notes that:

“Ayurveda medicine, is a system of medicine with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent. Globalized and modernized practices derived from Ayurveda traditions are a type of complementary or alternative medicine. In the Western world, Ayurveda therapies and practices (which are manifold) have been integrated in general wellness applications and as well in some cases in medical use”.

So is laughter really the best medicine? Mr. Aswani thinks it certainly helps. When he set up the CCC in 1973, he started to prescribe Chaplin’s comic movies as a remedy for his patients’ ailments. In the interview he did for Forbidden, he said that: “I had Hitler and Chaplin in their typical toothbrush moustaches displayed outside my clinic and would ask visitors which of the two they wanted to become in life”. According to the production notes I was given:

“The youngest Charlie in the group is just 18 months old, while the eldest is 73 years old. The group meets every week at the studio of Harish Thakker, a founder member of the circle. Here they practice their moves and enjoy special screenings of Chaplin films. For the last five years, Anjali Parmar, 18 [years old], has been dressing up as Charlie Chaplin. She plays his role as ‘Charlie in village’, which essentially involves her getting buried under a huge stack of hay and her struggles to come out of it”.

Kishore Bhawsar, a bus conductor in his fifties and fan club member said his life changed after watching Chaplin’s 1925 The Gold Rush (starring, written produced and directed by Chaplin). Bhawsar claimed “Chaplin absorbs grief and makes you laugh. He said, ‘I walk in the rain to hide my tears.’ He was a poet”. As a town they convene on Chaplin’s birthday (April 16) and perform Chaplin mimes and skits and watch his films on the big screen. Mr. Aswani – a self-confessed cinema and theatre buff – was interviewed by the BBC and said that watching The Gold Rush in 1966 had “changed his life”. As a young man, he saw the poster for the film, went into the cinema and watched the film four times in a row – something that got him sacked from his job:

“I was wonderstruck. I found his dress and look fascinating. How does the man bend his legs like that? A whole new world of cinema opened up for me. The music, technique, photography was so different! And I thought, is Chaplin an actor or a magician? I fell off my seat laughing in the darkness. I lost my job, but I gained Chaplin. I became obsessed with him, I became interested in acting and wanted desperately to become an actor…The celebrations will never cease. Our children and grandchildren are already hooked to Chaplin’s films, so our homage to the actor will never end”.

Mr. Aswani’s efforts do not appear to have gone unnoticed. A 2008 film (The Boot Cake) made by Kathryn Millard examined Charlie Chaplin imitators around the world and was nominated for best documentary by the Australian Writers’ Guild Awards. In an interview with the BBC, Millard said:

“When I set out to research a documentary about Chaplin imitators around the world, I had no idea that I would meet a very special community – perhaps Chaplin’s most devoted followers – in a small town in India…[Whenever I show the film] people ask me whether there is a way they could join the Charlie Circle…I hope they may start accepting associate members from other countries!”

In another interview with the Indian Times, Millard was quoted as saying:

“Charlie Chaplin holds a special appeal for migrants. The Tramp is a mentor and a guardian angel for people around the world who have poured into cities lured by the promise of employment. Chaplin’s movies speak to people – they have a wonderful mix of pathos and humour, they’re funny and touching at the same time. Charlie thumbs his nose at authority, deflates puffed up officialdom and triumphs over adversity. No matter how low on luck, Charlie always sees hope. Landing on his bum in the gutter, he’s soon cheerfully looking for cigarette butts. He has the quality we call resilience – in spades”.

And it’s not just men who get involved. The India Times interviewed teenager Anjali Palmer (mentioned in one of the quotes above) who has been dressing up as Chaplin since her early teens and loves making the others in her town laugh. She was quoted as saying:

“I have learnt from Sir Charlie that we should share happiness with all and I am committed to this mission. He is one real character who can make people laugh even in the face of adversity. His heart is true and he always stands up for the weak”.

These sentiments were echoed by Talin Navani, who at only 10-years-old is one of the youngest members of the CCC. He told the Indian Times: 

“When you’re sad and lonely, draw a toothbrush moustache on your face and try smiling into the mirror, and you’ll end up laughing at yourself. That’s Charlie’s magic. I thought I should share this feeling with people around me. Everybody looks so worn out these days. They have forgotten to smile”.

It would appear that the CCC members ‘obsession’ (if it can be described as such) with Chaplin have turned into a force for health and social good. As noted by Chaplin’s most famous character ‘The Tramp’, the people of Adipur appear to live their lives based on one of his most well known quotes: “The last shall yet be, if not first, at least recognised, and perhaps even loved.”

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

BBC News (2010). India’s Chaplin loving town. April 20. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8631348.stm

John, P. (2010). Charlie’s angels in Adipur. Times of India, February 20. Located at: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-02-20/india/28131863_1_charlie-chaplin-moustaches-toothbrush

Loke, A. (2010). The great imitator. YouTube, July 16. Located at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhMaoS92Eqw

Wikipedia (2016). Charlie Chaplin. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Chaplin

Musical flares: Bowie, The Beatles, psychology, songs, and addiction

It’s been only two weeks since David Bowie’s untimely death and the Bowie obsessive in me is still finding it difficult to accept. I have never been more upset by the death of someone that I didn’t know personally. The only other celebrity death that left me with such an empty feeling was that of John Lennon back in December 1980. I was only 14 years old but I remember waking up to the news on that Tuesday morning (December 9, the morning after he had been shot in New York by Mark David Chapman). I went to school that day with a feeling I had never experienced before and I got it again two weeks ago when Bowie (co-incidentally) died in New York.

Bowie and The Beatles (and Lennon in particular) are arguably the two biggest musical influences on my life. With my interest in addictive behaviours, Bowie and Lennon are just two of the many celebrities that have succumbed to substance abuse and addiction over the years (and was a topic I covered in a previous blog – ‘Excess in success: Are celebrities more prone to addiction?’). Thankfully, neither of their addictions was that long-lasting, and neither of them wrote that many songs about their drug-fuelled experiences (although Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’ about his heroin addiction is a notable exception).

Lennon was arguably one of Bowie’s musical heroes although Bowie’s 1973 covers LP Pin-Ups was notable for the absence of Beatle covers. By 1973, Bowie had covered songs by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, and The Who on vinyl but never The Beatles. Having said that, two Beatle songs did play a small part in his concerts between 1972 and 1974. Most notably, The Beatles very first British single ‘Love Me Do’ was often played as a medley with ‘The Jean Genie’. (On the 1990 Sound and Vision Tour, a snippet of ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘ was also sometimes incorporated into ‘The Jean Genie’. He also sang a snippet of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends‘ in the encore of his final concert in 1978). Bowie also occasionally covered ‘This Boy’ (the b-side of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, their fifth British hit single in his concerts) as part of the early ‘Ziggy Stardust’ shows. (I’m probably one of the few people in the world that has this song on bootleg). Speaking of bootlegs, the Chameleon Chronicles CD featured a cover of the 1967 single ‘Penny Lane‘ allegedly by Bowie along with The Monkees song ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (written by Neil Diamond). Although these songs sound like 1960s Bowie, they were actually from a 1967 LP (Hits ’67) and sung by session singer (Tony Steven). Nicholas Pegg (in his great book The Complete David Bowie) also noted that Bowie’s late 1960s group Feathers included ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘ in their live set and that Bowie performed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four‘ in his 1968 live cabaret show after his own song ‘When I’m Five‘).

It was in 1975 that Bowie worked with Lennon musically, and Lennon appeared on two songs of Bowie’s 1975 LP Young Americans (although Bowie gave Lennon a name check in his 1971 song ‘Life On Mars‘ – “Now the workers have struck for fame/’Cause Lennon’s on sale again”). The most well-known was ‘Fame’ (one of my own personal favoutrites) which went to No.1 in the US chart (but only No.17 here in the UK) and had a Bowie co-writing credit with Lennon (along with Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar). Lennon was apparently reluctant to be acknowledged as co-writer but Bowie insisted (probably just to say he had a ‘Bowie/Lennon’ song in his canon and maybe because he was a little starstruck). The song should arguably include other co-writers as the riff was based on the song ‘Foot Stompin’’ (also covered by Bowie) by the doo-wop band The Flares (sometime referred to as The Flairs). Lennon also played on a version of The Beatles’ song ‘Across The Universe’ but was arguably the weakest song on the LP. It’s also worth mentioning that the title track also included a line – and tune –  from The Beatles ‘A Day In The Life‘ (“I heard the news today, oh boy”). Bowie and Lennon were also photographed together at the 1975 US Grammy Awards (where Bowie presented the award for the best ‘rhythm and blues’ performance by a female vocalist Aretha Franklin). This was around the height of Bowie’s cocaine addiction and he subsequently went in to say that he has no recollection of being there at all. In the same year, Bowie also appeared on singer Cher‘s US television show and sang a medley of songs that included ‘Young Americans‘ and The Beatles ‘Day Tripper‘.

Like millions of people around the world (including myself), Lennon’s death in 1980 hit Bowie hard. Not only had he lost a good friend, but he began to think of his own mortality and how easy it would be for a crazed fan to kill him in some kind of copycat assassination. At the time, Bowie was receiving rave reviews for his portrayal of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway. (I’ve always been interested in The Elephant Man as I may even be a distant relation as my grandmother was a Merrick). He soon stepped down from the role and went into ‘semi-retirement’ before re-emerging in 1983 with his biggest selling single and album Let’s Dance.

Since Lennon’s death, Bowie has covered three Lennon solo tracks (‘Imagine’, ‘Mother’, and ‘Working Class Hero’). He sang ‘Imagine’ at a concert in Hong Kong (December 8, 1983) three years to the day since Lennon had been shot (a soundboard recording of which appears on a number of different Bowie bootlegs). In 1989, Bowie recorded the first of two Lennon songs taken from Lennon’s most psychologically inspired album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) written while undergoing primal therapy (see my previous blog for an overview on primal therapy in music). The first was ‘Working Class Hero’ for the 1989 ill-fated album Tin Machine (often voted one of Bowie’s worst cover versions by fans). The second track he recorded was ‘Mother’ (in 1998) for a John Lennon tribute album that Lennon’s widow (Yoko Ono) was putting together. Unfortunately, the album was never released but in 2006 it was leaked on the internet and has now appeared on many Bowie bootlegs. Although Bowie and Lennon never collaborated musically again, they remained close friends until Lennon’s death.

As far as I am aware, the only other Beatle-related song that Bowie has ever recorded was ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ that appeared on George Harrison’s 1973 LP Living In The Material World. Bowie covered the song for his 2003 album Reality, and although this was recorded not long after Harrison’s death from throat cancer, Bowie claimed that he thought it was Ronnie Spector’s song (ex-lead singer of The Ronettes), as she was the first artist to record in 1971. It was also claimed by German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (26 January 2013) that Bowie’s 2001 song from Heathen, ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi’’ was a tribute to Harrison but I have yet to see this conformed by anyone within the Bowie camp. Harrison met Bowie in Memphis during his 1974 Dark Horse tour. In a 1974 interview to a New York radio station, Harrison said:

“I just met David Bowie [during the Dark Horse Tour]…David Bowie, these were my very words, and I hope he wasn’t offended by it because all I really meant was what I said. I pulled his hat up from over his eyes and said: ‘Hi, man, how are you, nice to meet you,’ pulled his hat up and said, you know, ‘Do you mind if I have a look at you, to see what you are because I’ve only ever seen those dopey pictures of you.’ I mean, every picture I’ve ever seen of David Bowie, or Elton John, they just look stupid to me…I want to see, you know, who the person is”.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Bowie and Lennon first met each other at a Hollywood party hosted by actress Elizabeth Taylor. Lennon was with his girlfriend May Pang at the time (during his 18-month separation from Yoko). According to Pang, Bowie and Lennon “hit it off instantly” and kept in touch. When John went back to Yoko, Pang remained friends with Bowie and eventually married Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time record producer.

One of the more interesting articles on the relationship between Bowie and The Beatles was by Peter Doggett – author of books on both artists. In a 2011 blog he noted:

“I was struck during the research of [my book ‘The Man Who Sold The World’] by the influence that the Beatles had on Bowie’s work in the 70s. Some of that influence is obvious – the McCartney-inspired piano styling of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things‘, for example. As early as 1965, in an obscure song entitled ‘That’s Where My Heart Is’, Bowie sounded as if he was learning how to write songs by listening to [The Beatles second 1963 album] ‘With The Beatles’…in the book I talk about the apparent Fab Four influence on ‘Blackout‘ from the ‘Heroes‘ LP. But the single most dramatic role played by the Beatles in Bowie’s 70s work was exerted by John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album. You can hear a touch of Lennon in the way Bowie sings ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969; some Beatles-inspired backing vocals on ‘Star’ from the Ziggy Stardust album; and, of course, yer actual Lennon voice and guitar on Bowie’s cover of ‘Across The Universe’ and his hit single ‘Fame’. All of which made me wish that Bowie had made a whole album (1980’s Scary Monsters, perhaps) in similar vein. So I was intrigued to learn from Bowie fan Martyn Mitchell that guitarist Adrian Belew recalled working on a whole set of Plastic Ono Band-inspired tracks with Bowie around this period, but that Bowie never completed or issued them. Perhaps he was hoping that he might persuade Lennon himself to join him in the studio – until fate, and a madman, intervened”.

Following Bowie’s death, the remaining Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) both played tribute to Bowie’s genius. Ringo (who appeared in the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars movie filmed in 1973 and released 1983) tweeted a short message, while McCartney’s message was a little more heartfelt:

“Very sad news to wake up to on this raining morning. David was a great star and I treasure the moments we had together. His music played a very strong part in British musical history and I’m proud to think of the huge influence he has had on people all around the world. I send my deepest sympathies to his family and will always remember the great laughs we had through the years. His star will shine in the sky forever”.

As far as I am aware, Bowie only met McCartney a few times in his life most notably at the July 1973 premiere of the James Bond film Live and Let Die (with McCartney writing the theme song), and at the Live Aid concert in 1985 (where Bowie was on of the backing singers as McCartney performed ‘Let It Be’). Yoko movingly described Bowie as a “father figure” to their son Sean Lennon following Lennon’s death:

“John and David respected each other. They were well matched in intellect and talent. As John and I had very few friends, we felt David was as close as family. After John died, David was always there for Sean and me. When Sean was at boarding school in Switzerland, David would pick him up and take him on trips to museums and let Sean hang out at his recording studio in Geneva. For Sean, this is losing another father figure. It will be hard for him, I know. But we have some sweet memories which will stay with us forever”.

It could perhaps be argued that Bowie and Lennon were cut from the same psychosocial cloth. They both had middle class backgrounds and had many of the same musical heroes (Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley being the most salient – Bowie sharing Presley’s birthday on January 8). They were both interested in the arts more generally and they were both singers, songwriters, artists, and writers (to a greater or lesser extent). Although Lennon rarely engaged in acting, he always appeared at ease in front of the camera. They both knew how to use the media for their own artistic advantage. In short, there’s a lot that psychologists can learn from both of them.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Doggett, P. (2009). The Art and Music of John Lennon. London: Omnibus Press.

Doggett, P. (2012). The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. London: Vintage.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

Penned in: How to become an excessive (and productive) writer

Many people that I know would probably describe me as a ‘writaholic’ based on the number of articles and papers that I have had published. When it comes to addictions in academia, ‘writing addiction’ is just about the best one you can have. I don’t believe I have an addiction to writing but it is a very salient activity in my life and I am a habitual writer and I write every day. In previous blogs I examined diary writing and psychological wellbeing as well as an article on graphomania (obsessive writing). Today’s blog briefly examines some of the things that make people more productive writers (and by definition a more excessive writer). During my career I’ve published many articles on the writing process (see ‘Further reading’ below) and today’s blog looks at some of my beliefs and practices.

Before outlining some general advice, it’s also worth exploring many of the false beliefs that many of us have about writing – beliefs which may explain why many of us don’t like writing. For instance:

  • Writing is inherently difficult: Like speaking, writing doesn’t need to be perfect to be effective and satisfying.
  • Good writing must be original: Little, if any, of what we write is truly original. What makes our ideas worthwhile communicating is the way we present them.
  • Good writing must be perfect preferably in a single draft: In general, the more successful writers are more likely to revise manuscripts.
  • Good writing must be spontaneous: There appears to be a belief that writing should await inspiration. However, the most productive and satisfying way to write is habitually, regardless of mood or inspiration. Writers who overvalue spontaneity tend to postpone writing, and if they write at all, they write in binges that they associate with fatigue.
  • Good writing must proceed quickly: Procrastination goes hand in hand with impatience. Those writers who often delay writing suppose that writing must proceed quickly and effortlessly. However, good writing can often proceed at a slow pace over a lengthy period of time.
  • Good writing is delayed until the right mood with big blocks of undisrupted time available: Good writing can take place in any mood at any time. It is better to write habitually in short periods every day rather than in binges.
  • Good writers are born not made: Good writing is a process that can be learned like any other behaviour.
  • Good writers do not share their writing until it is finished and perfect: Although some writers are independent, many writers share their ideas and plans at an early stage and then get colleagues to read over their early drafts for comments and ideas.

Even when these false beliefs about writing are dispelled, many of us can still have problems putting pen to paper or finger to keypad. Insights about writing only slowly translate into actions. For most professionals, writing is only done out of necessity (i.e., a report that they have to hand in). This produces a feeling of ‘having to write’ rather than ‘wanting to write’ and can lead to boredom and/or anxiety. Furthermore, most people appear to view writing as a private act in which their problems are unique and embarrassing. Strategies for overcoming this include getting colleagues to criticize their own work before going ‘public’, sharing initial plans and ideas with others, and practising reviewing other people’s work.

It is generally acknowledged that there is no one proven effective method above all others for teaching people to become better writers. It is also a process that can be learned and can aid learning (i.e., a skill learned through opportunities to write and from instructional feedback). Although there are no ‘quick fixes’ to becoming a better writer, here are some general tips on how to make your writing more productive. I would advise you to:

  • Establish a regular place where all serious writing is done
  • Remove distracting temptations from the writing site (e.g., magazines, television)
  • Leave other activities (e.g., washing up, making the dinner) until after writing
  • Limit potential interruptions (e.g., put a “Do not disturb” sign on the door, unplug the telephone)
  • Make the writing site as comfortable as possible
  • Make recurrent activities (e.g., telephone calls, coffee making) dependent upon minimum periods of writing first
  • Write while ‘feeling fresh’ and leave mentally untaxing activities until later in the day
  • Plan beyond daily goals and be realistic about what can be written in the time available
  • Plan and schedule writing tasks into manageable units
  • Complete one section of writing at a time if the writing is in sections
  • Use a word processor to make drafting easier
  • Revise and redraft at least twice
  • Write daily rather than ‘bingeing’ all in one go
  • Share writing with peers as people are more helpful, judgmental and critical on ‘unfinished’ drafts

Obviously, the problem with such a prescriptive list such as this is that not every suggestion will work for everyone. Many of us know our own limitations and create the right conditions to help get the creative juices going. Some people can’t write in silence or with others in the room. By reading this short blog I cannot make you become a more productive and excessive writer overnight. However, it has hopefully equipped my blog readers with some tips and discussion points that may help in facilitating better writing amongst yourselves and colleagues.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). Productive writing in the education system. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 7, 460-462.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). How to…get students to write with confidence. Times Higher Education Supplement, June 8, p.24.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Tips on…Report writing. British Medical Journal (Careers), 328, 28.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Writing for non-refereed outlets (Part 1 – Professional journals and newsletters). Psy-PAG Quarterly, 29, 41-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Writing for non-refereed outlets (Part 2 – Newspapers and magazines). Psy-PAG Quarterly, 30, 5-6.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Writing and getting published – My top 10 tips. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 34, 2-4.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Addiction, fiction and media depiction: A light-hearted look at scientific writing and the media. Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science, 2(2), 16-17.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Top tips on…Writing with confidence. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 76, 33-34.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). How writing blogs can help your academic career. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 87, 39-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Top tips on…Writing blogs. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 90, 13-14.

Extremes of dreams (so it seems): The psychology of ‘Vanilla Sky’

Regular readers of my blog will know that when it comes to certain films and television shows (and their accompanying DVD box sets) I can be somewhat obsessive and fanatical (for instance see, my blog on my love of all things concerning Hannibal Lecter). I’m one of those individuals that will watch some films again and again looking for further insight and deeper meanings (such as Memento, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, Shutter Island, Seven, and The Shining). One of the films I have watched many times is Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz), a remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).

One of the reason I like the film is that it prominently features the concept of lucid dreaming. I’d never heard of lucid dreaming until 1988. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter at the time and one of my best friends (Robert Rooksby) was doing his PhD on lucid dreaming. As the Wikipedia entry on lucid dreaming notes:

“A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. In relation to this phenomenon, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed: ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream’…The person most widely acknowledged as having coined the term is Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden…In a lucid dream, the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment…Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid. It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta-1 frequency band (13–19 Hz) brain wave activity experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process”.

Much like the films of David Lynch (one of my favourite film directors), Vanilla Sky is a film forces you to think about what is going on and is one of those films that you can come to your own conclusions as to what it all means. As a psychologist, I love films that play with the mind and Vanilla Sky is one of those films, particularly as psychology in the form of dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious lie at the heart of the film. The director Cameron Crowe added many obscure clues and hidden references throughout the film to help viewers further explain the film and to add more layers.  There are dozens of dedicated websites that have compiled lists of theories, messages and/or hidden clues. In the film’s production notes, Crowe later admitted: “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there”. That alone is enough of a hook to get me watching repeatedly.

Another aspect of the film that I love is the perfect use of music. Almost every lyric of every song used throughout the movie interweaves seamlessly between the actors, the in-scene narrative, and the developing story line. The songs are expertly chosen. This is no surprise given that Crowe was formerly a music journalist and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Like me, Crowe is a huge fan of The Beatles, and referred to the “clues” in Vanilla Sky as his own version of the ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ rumour that swept the world in 1969 (i.e., the notorious Beatles hoax when fans worldwide became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike). As Crowe commented: “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlour game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us [on Vanilla Sky]”. One of the homages to The Beatles in the film concerns their song Revolution 9. The film contains countless references to the number (or time) 9:09 (on Aames’ wristwatch, a child’s shirt, the prison chalkboard, and multiple references to cats who, has myth has it, have nine lives).

I’m assuming that anyone that has read this far has seen the film (but if you haven’t – spoiler alert – some of what I’m about to write will likely reduce the enjoyment of watching the film for the first time). The thrust of the plot is as follows:

“From a prison cell where he has been charged for murder, David Aames (Tom Cruise, in a prosthetic mask, tells his life story to court psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). In flashback, David [who is acrophobic with an irrational fear of heights] is shown to be the wealthy owner of a large publishing firm in New York City which he inherited from his father, leaving its regular duties to his father’s trusted associates. As David enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz) by his best friend and author Brian Shelby [who is writing a book on Aames] at a party. David and Sofia spend a night together talking, and fall in love. When David’s former lover, Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz) hears of Sofia, she attempts to kill herself and David in a car crash. Julie dies but David survives, his face grotesquely disfigured, leading him to wear a mask to hide the injuries. With no hope to use plastic surgery to repair the damage, David cannot come to grips with the idea of wearing the mask for the rest of his life. One night on a night out with Sofia…David gets hopelessly drunk, and [is left by Sophia] to wallow in the street outside” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky)

It is generally accepted that everything from this point in the film is a dream (although others say the whole film is a dream). Rather than live out the rest of his life in a disfigured state, Aames has his body cryogenically frozen by a company called Life Extension after attempting suicide. He lives the rest of his life as a lucid dream from the moment he was found on the pavement after his drunken night out (“under the ‘vanilla sky’ from a Monet painting”). However, during cryogenic sleep, the lucid dream goes horribly wrong and starts to incorporate elements from his subconscious. After 150 years in suspended sleep, the company that placed Aames into cryogenic suspension calls in ‘Tech Support’ and Aames is offered a choice to either be reinserted into a corrected lucid dream, or to wake up by taking a leap of faith – literally – from the top of a high roof (that forces him to challenge his fear of heights).

Conquering his final fear, David jumps off the building, his life flashing before his eyes, and whites out immediately before hitting the ground. A female voice commands him to ‘open your eyes’ (a recurring theme in the movie), and the film ends with David opening his eyes” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky).

Many different websites examining the film claim there are five interpretations of the film’s ending (and this is supported by Crowe himself). The five interpretations (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the film) are:

  • “Tech support is telling the truth: 150 years have passed since Aames killed himself and subsequent events form a lucid dream.
  • The entire film is a dream, evidenced by the sticker on Aames’ car that reads “2/30/01” (February 30 does not occur in the Gregorian Calendar).
  • The events following the crash form a dream that occurs while Aames is in a coma.
  • The entire film is the plot of the book that Brian [Shelby, his best friend] is writing.
  • The entire film after the crash is a hallucination caused by the drugs that were administered during Aames’ reconstructive surgery”.

(I’m most persuaded by the first interpretation). What I also love about the film is that Crowe added lots of little details that take a few viewings of the film before they are usually spotted. All of these help in both trying to interpret the film, as well as becoming a game where repeated watching becomes more rewarding. For instance:

  • In the first scene in which Julianna appears, the tune ringing on her cell phone is Row Row Row Your Boat that features the lyric “life is but a dream”.
  • At his birthday party, Aames is asked how it’s going to which he responds “Livin’ the dream, baby…livin’ the dream”.
  • At the same party, Aames’ best friend Brian Shelby comes into the second apartment wears a t-shirt with the words “fantasy” in sparkly sequins.
  • In one of the prison scenes, the word ‘DREAM’ is spelt out backwards on a chalkboard.
  • In the prison cell, the book, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (by Carl Jung) is on the table while Aames is talking to his psychiatrist Dr. McCabe. The book concerns Jung’s personal dreams and how they helped uncover his “shadow” and removed his persona (his ‘mask’). In fact one critique of the film by Carlo Cavagna described the whole film as “overtly Jungian”. More specifically, he asserted that Vanilla Sky is fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary…For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more ‘psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness’. The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based”.
  • On Aames’ prison uniform the name tag says “Frozen Guy”.
  • His patient number on his Life Extension cryogenic tank says “PL515NT 4R51MS” (which if the numbers are replaced with their corresponding letters of the alphabet, it almost spells “Pleasant Dreams”).
  • As Aames is getting his prison photograph taken, the slate spells ‘When did the dream become a nightmare?’ (in simple code).
  • Sofia calls Aames a “pleasure delayer” twice in the film (but says it so subtly that it’s hard to hear properly).
  • When Aames and Sophia are lying in bed after making love, Sophia asks “Is this is a dream?” and Aames replied “absolutely”.
  • At one point in the film, Dr. McCabe tells Aames that he’d had a nightmare the day before.  Aames replies that “It’s all a nightmare”.

I said earlier in the article that I thought the songs were perfectly chosen. Many fans of the film have noted that the lyrics repeatedly appear to match the emotion of the scene where it is played. As the Uncool website notes:

“For example, the song that plays over David leaving Sophia’s in the morning is Jeff Buckley’s, ‘Last Goodbye’…that morning was there last one true goodbye. Yes, they see each other after this, but after the car wreck when both of their lives are forever changed. ‘Last Goodbye’ also contains the lyrics: ‘Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire, babe not consolation’ which follows David’s plight rather well (as the next time he sees her is after the accident and he wants her affections but not sympathy for his disfigurement)…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ album (featured in the closing montage) also has some lyrical significance. One of the best lines from the song ‘The River’ is: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Also, two R.E.M. songs are featured. Don’t forget what R.E.M. stands for. Rapid eye movement. As in a state of sleep. It’s when you dream”.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that I simply love the level of detail that went into making the film. I am not a great fan of psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) interpretation, but in Vanilla Sky, the mask that Aames wore became his ‘persona’ and the term was used by Carl Jung to describe the face that we as individuals present to society and (in some cases) to ourselves. Carlo Cavagna argues that:

“[Aames] attraction to [Sophie] is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto “the person of the beloved…David’s disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous “splinter personality” in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word ‘shadow’, Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly’… [Aames] reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film’s main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible – eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona). The revelation and assimilation of David’s unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky”.

Although there are many critics who hated the film, I love it on many different levels (including the underlying psychology).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cavagna, C. (2001, December). Vanilla Sky. Located at: http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/v/vanillasky.htm

Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage.

Kummer, R. (2010). “What is happiness to you?” Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis. Located at: http://rkummer.hubpages.com/hub/What-is-happiness-to-you-Vanilla-Sky-2001-Film-Analysis

Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18–28. Located at: http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/freudvan.htm

Turner, R. (2014). Vanilla Sky movie review: Beyond lucid dreams. Located at: http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/vanilla-sky-review.html

The Uncool (2015). Vanilla Sky secrets. Located at: http://www.theuncool.com/films/vanilla-sky/vanilla-sky-secrets

Wikipedia (2015). Vanilla Sky. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Vanilla_Sky

Prophet share: A case study of ‘addiction to fortune telling’

In the latest issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, there are two papers that I co-authored on muscle dysmorphia as an addiction (see ‘Further reading’ below). The reason I mention this is because in the same issue there was a case study report by Dr. Marie Grall-Bronnec and her colleagues of a woman (Helen) that was ‘addicted’ to fortune tellers. As noted in their paper:

“Clairvoyance consulting, also known as fortune teller consulting, is a behavior that may seem harmless, but can also become excessive. Fortune telling is defined as the practice of predicting information about a person’s life, using for example…astrology, cartomancy or crystallomancy”.

As I have noted in a number of my previous blogs, I subscribe to the view that if there are clinical criteria for addiction and a behaviour fulfils the criteria, it should be classed as an addiction (irrespective of the behaviour). This has led to accusations of me “watering down the concept of addiction” because such criteria have been applied to behaviours as diverse as gardening and chewing gum. According to the authors of the ‘fortune telling addiction’ paper:

“Helen is a 45-year-old woman who declares early on suffering from ‘a clairvoyance addiction’…She has no particular medical history, except for two major depression episodes after romantic breakups, and does not take any medication. She regularly sees a psychiatrist for support psychotherapy because of negative life events (sexual abuse and death in her family). She is divorced and does not have any children. Her career as a manager seems to fully satisfy her. She decides to seek treatment on account of her excessive financial expenditures due to the consultation of fortune tellers. Another motivation that explains her decision is her age. Indeed, she says she is entering a new phase in her life, after renouncing to the idea of becoming a mother one day”.

According to the paper, Helen had been consulting fortune tellers since she was 19 years old. She started using such people for educational and career advice as she claimed that she was poor at reaching important decisions herself and thought the life choices she made would be wrong. The authors noted that her first meeting with a clairvoyant was an event that gave her a feeling of reassurance. In her mid-twenties, her visits to clairvoyants escalated significantly and ended up losing control of her use of fortune telling”. At that particular time, she was visiting clairvoyants to get relationship advice from them (e.g., “Does he really love me?” and “How long will our relationship last?”). Her current ‘addiction to clairvoyants’ dates back to her mid- to late-30s when she got divorced after the failure of her marriage:

“She repeatedly returned to fortune telling to reassure herself about the future of her relationship, and increasingly so as it deteriorated. The breakup worsened the disorder. Since her divorce, she consults fortune tellers – not always the same person – on the phone or online, in a compulsive way, more and more often (up to every day), for longer and longer periods of time (up to 8 hours a day) and spends each time more and more money (up to 200 euros per session). As she is never satisfied with the fortune tellers’ predictions, she will consult again very soon after the latest call or connection. Every choice she has to make, from the most trivial (going to the movies) to the most important (making relationship decisions), leads her to irrationally consult a fortune teller”

Before each consultation she said he got very excited at the prospect and that the experience relieved all of her psychological discomfort (at least in the short-term). However, not long after consultations she would feel incredibly guilty. The paper also reported that during consultations with the fortune tellers, she was totally convinced that they could see her future and that their predictions would come true. He authors went on to report:

“This excessive behavior gives her some kind of reassurance and allows her to make up for her lack of self-confidence. In that sense, the excessive behavior could be considered as an attempt at self-medication or as a way to cope with negative emotions. However, Helen knows that her belief in the fortune tellers’ ability to predict the future is completely irrational. This brings major adverse consequences, particularly in financial terms: despite a comfortable income, she is indebted. She also says having low self-esteem, due to her in- ability to resist her strong urge to consult fortune tellers, and due to her being isolated from the others because of the time spent consulting fortune tellers. Helen succeeds in limiting the consultation of fortune tellers during short periods of time, when her financial situation becomes too critical”.

The authors of the report also used different sets of addiction criteria to determine whether Helen was truly addicted to consulting clairvoyants. They also used my own six criteria (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse). Here are the authors own description of the behaviour using my components model:

  • Salience: “Consulting fortune tellers becomes the most important activity in Helen’s life and dominates her thinking (preoccupation and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behavior (she has progressively quit all her leisure activities, particularly going out with friends)”.
  • Mood modification: “Helen says feeling excitement before each consultation, but also feels nervous tension and anxiety. This excessive behavior gives her some kind of reassurance and the excessive behavior could be considered as an attempt at self-medication or a way to cope with negative emotions”.
  • Tolerance: “Over time, Helen has been feeling a growing need to consult fortune tellers, and the consultations have to last longer to obtain the same effect of relief”.
  • Withdrawal: “When she attempts to resist the urge to consult or has to refrain from consulting fortune tellers (in the case of her financial situation being too critical, for example), she feels tense and nervous”.
  • Conflict: “Helen knows that her use of fortune telling is problematic, and that it brings very negative consequences. However, she cannot refrain from consulting fortune tellers, leading to an intra-psychic conflict and guilt”.
  • Relapse: “Over the years, Helen has made repeated efforts to reduce and stop this problematic behavior. Her clinical course is characterized by relapses and remissions”.

Based on the evidence presented, there is clear evidence that Helen’s behaviour was problematic. Whether it was genuinely addictive is debatable but the authors provided some evidence that (in this case at least) the behaviour appeared to include some addictive aspects. The authors conclude that in addition to individual risk factors, other situational and structural characteristics may have played a role in the development of problematic behaviour concerning Helen’s ‘addiction’:

Regarding the risk factors related to the object of addiction (i.e. fortune telling use), one might mention, inter alia, the possibility to consult online, which guarantees anonymity. Furthermore, the Internet increases both accessibility and availability. Finally, the money spent during fortune telling sessions seems virtual, which makes it all the more easy to spend. Increased risks related to the Internet have already been described on gambling (Griffiths, Wardle, Orford, Sproston & Erens, 2009). Regarding socio-environmental risk factors, today’s society encourages the need for control and does not give way to uncertainty. In Helen’s case, all the conditions were met for the fortune telling use to become excessive, and we are tempted to conclude that it is an addictive-like phenomenon”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Foster, A.C., Shorter, G.W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Muscle Dysmorphia: Could it be classified as an Addiction to Body Image? Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 1-5.

Grall-bronnec, M. Bulteau, S., Victorri-Vigneau, C., Bouju, G. & Sauvaget, A. (2015). Fortune telling addiction: Unfortunately a serious topic about a case report. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 4, 27-31.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M. (2005). A “components” model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191–197.

Griffiths, M.D., Foster, A.C. & Shorter, G.W. (2015). Muscle dysmorphia as an addiction: A response to Nieuwoudt (2015) and Grant (2015). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 11-13.

Griffiths, M., Wardle, H., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2009). Sociodemographic correlates of internet gambling: Findings from the 2007 British gambling prevalence survey. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 199–202.

Hughes, M., Behanna, R. & Signorella, M. L. (2001). Perceived ac- curacy of fortune telling and belief in the paranormal. Journal of Social Psychology, 141(1), 159–160.

Shein, P. P., Li, Y. Y. & Huang, T. C. (2014). Relationship between scientific knowledge and fortune-telling. Public Understanding of Science, 23(7), 780–796.

Hooked on pain: Inside the world of the Corn Tryb Rituals

“Devotees at Kerala’s Aaryyankavu Bhagwathi Temple have devised a new way of performing the banned ancient Thookkam, or body-piercing ritual. In the original Thookam ritual, the back of the person willing to perform the ritual is pierced with sharp hooks and lifted up to a height of over 30 feet on a scaffold, before the bleeding victim is brought down and hooks taken out. However, the new method doesn’t require the devotee to be hung or lifted. ‘After a court put a ban on the ancient ritual of multiple body-piercing and hanging from rope, now only single piercing is done in the body and the person just stands still and does not hang. The devotees also fast for 41 days’ said Shiv Raman, a temple committee member. In 2004 – following a widespread protest by social activists and even Hindu priests – the practice was banned by a court. The legend behind the ritual goes back to the ancient days. Legend has it that even after slaying the demon Darika, the Goddess Kali remained bloodthirsty. Hindu god Lord Vishnu then sent his mount, the giant bird Garuda, to Kali. Garuda gave the goddess some drops of blood, which pacified her thirst. The ritual is performed based on this belief” (News Track India, March 31, 2010).

Last year I was the resident psychologist on a 12-episode series for the Discovery Channel called Forbidden (which is now airing in the UK). Each episode examined four cases of extreme human behaviour from around the world (in fact, when I started filming, the series was called Extreme Worlds and only changed names at the eleventh hour). One of the stories we covered featured people that hung and suspended themselves from hooks that were pierced into their flesh. Although some people appear to carry out the practice as part of sexually sadomasochistic practices, the opening story highlights that some people carry out such ritualistic behaviour for religious and/or spiritual reasons.

In Forbidden, the story concentrated on what were called the ‘Corn Tryb Rituals’ (CTRs). These originated in St. Louis (Missouri, USA) when a small group of friends formed a group that would meet to engage in bloodletting rituals and ‘flesh pulls’. These practices then evolved into regular ritualised ‘suspensions’ that strove to connect to ancient ways. As one CTR participant interviewed said: “We give back to the earth and universe parts of us. Usually blood, sometimes flesh…We burn sage and sing songs to the gods. We send out positive energies”.

In researching CTRs, the documentary makers found out that there were strong Mayan threads running through the group in St. Louis, the foremost theme being the myth of creation, i.e., the Mayans first created man out of mud, then wood, and then finally corn (and where the CTR name derives). All the St. Louis CTR members had a scarification or tattoo of day glyph, a symbol of the Mayan calendar. (A glyph is an element of writing – an individual mark on a written medium – that contributes to the meaning of what is written).

The CTR’s founder is Ricardo H. (a professional piercer by trade) who formed the group with 12 ‘core’ members comprising seven men and five women (although there are more individuals on the periphery). The members claimed that the female members had a higher pain threshold (although there was little evidence to back up this claim). The documentary’s production notes reported that:

“[The St. Louis CTR group] is one of few crews is the US that does suspension the tribal and ceremonial way. Other groups are more hardcore and punk, kind of like ‘F the World’, Ricardo says. CTR members say for them it’s about loving the world and forging a connection to Mother Earth. There are a few people in the Tryb that practice Druidism and several Wiccans, even a Catholic guy who believes that doing suspensions (especially things like the crucifixion suspensions) help him become closer to God. Then there are the atheists who just like to suspend because it gives them a high that tops any drug they’ve ever touched. Even for those who have never done drugs, it’s still a high for them. Being safe is their No. 1 priority. It took nearly three years before they had all the necessary equipment, especially considering mountain equipment is very expensive. In general, most suspension groups work with the same materials that are used by climbers and professional riggers. If people think they sloppily insert hooks and try dangerous procedures on a whim, they would be wrong. The procedures behind the suspensions are specific and everything is well planned out. The hooks are specialized for suspension and can cost from $15 to $75 each. And they are sanitized in a similar way as for piercing tools: cold sanitation scrub, soak, scrub, autoclave”.

During CTRs, the hooks are usually placed into parts of the body where the skin is soft and stretches easily (so called ‘sweet spots’). This includes hook placements in the upper to middle back, chest, hips, calves, forearms, and knees. Even for those that have participated in many suspensions, the initial piercing hurts (“the hooks sting”) like any other piercing but the pain lasts longer because the needles and hooks are longer and bigger than those involved in typical ‘everyday’ body piercings. As one of the female group members said:

“Getting pierced sucks…But once you’re off the ground it’s just a big endorphin rush like how marathoners get runner’s high. Once the pulling starts though it’s not so bad, just pressure. I can deal with pressure pain better than stingy pain. When it gets too intense, I just zone out, but I try not to because I like to be able to selectively ‘zone,’ which is something I’m working on with scarification”.

Each time the group carries out a ritual suspension there are between five and eight people present all with a specific job they have to do to make the process as safe as possible for the person undergoing the actual suspension. According to the show’s production notes, the different roles include:

  • The ‘rigger’ that installs and monitors all the suspension equipment such as cable and ropes.
  • The piercer (in charge of ‘hook placement’) who also monitors the person for flesh ripping.
  • The ‘bio’ (short for ‘biohazard’) who keeps an eye on the hooks throughout the suspension, and removes bubbles and/or patches up any holes that form. They also make sure that not a single drop of blood hits the ground.
  • The ‘rope director’ that hoists the suspended person up and controls the slackness of the rope. There are also one or two others that control the rope line going up and down (a ‘puller’ and/or ‘holder’).
  • The ‘anchor points’ that oversee where the cables and chains are stationed and anchored and oversee the pulley system.

The ceremonial aspect is fundamental to the whole process with spiritual and fasting components. One interviewee reported:

“When you are suspended you are in a state of meditation. You feel connected to everything, all the energy of nature, my Tryb, the love that’s there. We often fast, offer offerings, play drums and other things. It’s pretty amazing”.

At the time of filming, the CTR members were about to have their ‘End of the World’ party (December 21). The date is significant as this is when the ancient Mayans marked the end of an era that would reset the date to zero and signal the end of humanity. The CTR members don’t see this as the literal ‘end of time’ but as the end of the cycle, with the re-alignment of planets and the beginning of a new, exciting cycle. I’m sure most of you reading this can’t imagine being subjected to such a extreme bodily experience (I certainly can’t) but the CTR members stress that the experience for them is not abnormal. Ultimately, they claim the ritual is a way of coping and understanding pain. They also stress that no-one in the groups is a masochist. They do it because it’s a challenge and a way to test the boundaries of their bodies.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

News Track India (2010). Body-piercing ritual at Kochi Temple. March 31. Located at: http://newstrackindia.com/newsdetails/156577

Hook Life (2011). Corn Tryb Ritual. Suspension.org, September 28. Located at: http://www.suspension.org/hooklife/corn-tryb-ritual/

At the cutting edge: A brief look at voluntary self-amputation

It was only very recently that I finally watched the film 127 Hours, the 2010 film directed by Danny Boyle based on the true story Aron Ralston, the canyoneer who cut off his own right forearm to free himself after it was trapped by a large boulder while rock climbing in Blue John Canyon (Utah, US). Apart from the early scenes in the film that were somewhat fictionalized, Ralston said the rest of the film was “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama”. The act of self-amputation is known as autotomy (from the Greek ‘auto’ – meaning ‘self’ and ‘tomy’ meaning ‘severing’) but the term is used more widely in the animal kingdom and usually refers to animals that self-sever as a self-defence mechanism (often to escape a predator). Arguably Ralston’s case was also a self-defence mechanism as a way of escaping his own death.

In previous blogs I have looked at cases of people who have cut off their own limbs because they were sexually aroused by the thought of being an amputee (i.e., apotemnophilia) and those who have cut off their own limbs because they believe the limb doesn’t belong to their own body (i.e., Body Integrity Identity Disorder, also known as ‘amputee identity disorder’ and xenomelia). However, today’s blog looks at some cases of those who have self-amputated to survive. Such cases are incredibly rare and almost always occur when the person becomes trapped in deserted environments with no means of contacting anyone and little chance of rescues (as was the case of Ralston). Here are a few other infamous cases:

  • With his pocket knife, Al Hill, a 66-year old man from California, had to cut off his own left leg just below the knee after it got stuck beneath a fallen tree he was cutting (2007). He was all alone in a forest for 11 hours and decided that the only way he was going to survive was to cut off his own leg with his pocket knives. However, despite cutting himself free, Hill was unable to move as he was in constant agony. Thankfully, Eric Bockey one of Hill’s neighbours heard his screams and Hill, was eventually rescued by the fire brigade.
  • A South Carolina farmer Sampson Parker cut off his own arm after it got stuck in a corn harvester. Parker spotted a piece of cornstalk stuck in a farm but on trying to get it out, his hand got stuck in the machine. After an hour of being stuck and calling for help no-one came, and Parker’s arm became completely numb. He then used his John Deere pocket knife to start cutting his fingers off. However, a fire broke out and the only way he could save his life was to cut off his right arm as fast as he could. Once he had cut off his arm he drove himself to a nearby rode and got help from the local fire brigade. In a television interview, Parker said: “My skin was melting. It was dripping off my arm like plastic, plastic melting. I realized I was in trouble. I just told myself, ‘I’m not going to die here. I just kept fighting, kept praying. And then when I did get loose, I jumped up running, I had blood squirting from my arm. It was pretty scary there for a while. I could feel the nerves as I was cutting my arm off. It really wasn’t the corn picker’s fault. It was my fault. It was just a mistake I made”.
  • While driving a front-end loader deep underground, Colin Jones (a 43-year old Australian miner) became trapped when the vehicle overturned when it hit a pothole while turning a corner. Fearing the vehicle would catch fire because diesel was leaking from the loader, Jones quickly cut off his own right arm below his elbow with his Stanley knife. However, Jones was a little premature because the emergency services arrived early enough to save the arm but by then he had already amputated his arm. Unfortunately, the severed arm was too badly crushed to be re-attached to his body.
  • One of the most bizarre amputations concerned a 30-year old Polish farmer (Krystof Azninski). In 1995, Azninski was playing some Polish drinking games drinking with friends when someone in his social group said they should play some “men’s games”. As one report noted: “Initially they hit each other over the head with frozen turnips, but then one man upped the ante by seizing a chainsaw and cutting off the end of his foot. Not to be outdone, Azninski grabbed the saw and, shouting ‘Watch this then’, he swung at his own head and chopped it off”. The report also claimed that by amputating his own head, Azninski could arguably lay claim to be the “most macho man in Europe”. Most of us reading this would probably say he was the most stupid.
  • An 18-year old male construction worker (Ramlan) from Padang trapped in the rubble of a building that collapsed during the September 2009 Indonesian earthquake escaped after sawing off his own leg. Ramlan tried to pull his leg free but was unable to. Using a nearby garden hoe he tried to hack off his own leg but the hoe’s blade was far too blunt to penetrate his leg bone. Using his mobile phone (that was still working following the building’s collapse) he phoned a friend (33-year old Eman) who came to the rescue of Ramlan. Eman found another garden implement – a trowel – and gave it to Ramlan who again tried to hack off the trapped leg. Finally, Eman found a saw and handed it to Ramlan. However, half way through sawing his leg off, Ramlan became too exhausted to continue and Eman finished sawing off Ramlan’s leg. Eman then carried Ramlan to Yos Sudarso hospital. The surgeons then performed a proper amputation a little higher up his leg.

The motivation in all of these cases was obviously survival but there are other rarer cases where self-amputation has been performed for criminal or political purposes. For instance, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, around 50 people from Vernon (Florida, USA; population 780) performed self-amputations in an attempt to claim ‘loss-of-limb’ accident insurance. In fact around two-thirds of all loss-of-limb insurance claims in the whole of the USA at the time came from Vernon. John J. Healy, insurance investigator was quoted as saying: “Vernon’s second-largest occupation was watching hound dogs mating in the town square, its largest was self-mutilation for monetary gain”. An online article on the six most horrifying ways to get rich reported:

“L.W. Burdeshaw, an insurance agent, told the St. Petersburg Times in 1982 that his list of policyholders included a man who sawed off his left hand at work, a man who shot off his foot while protecting chickens, a man who lost his hand while supposedly trying to shoot a hawk, a man who somehow lost two limbs in an accident involving a rifle and a tractor, and a man who bought a policy and then, less than 12 hours later, shot off his foot while aiming at a squirrel. Insurance agents, probably disillusioned by the whole Belle Gunness affair, were a little suspicious. Cutting your hand at work may be possible. Sawing off your entire hand at work really takes some amount of sustained effort…No one in the town was ever convicted of fraud, and it’s not easy to find out just how much they got away with. What we know is that one farmer took out policies with 38 different companies before, in some no doubt comical accident, he lost his left foot. Luckily, the particular day of the “accident” he happened to be driving his wife’s automatic, since if he’d been driving his own stick shift he would have needed the left foot to use the clutch. He also happened to have a tourniquet in his pocket (in case of snake bites, he insisted). He could be telling the truth, right? Well, it turned out he’d taken out so much insurance that he was paying premiums that cost more than his total income. He collected more than $1 million from all the companies. The insurance companies fought it but conceded, ‘it was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his own foot’”.

Another infamous case concerned Daniel Rudolph, the oldest brother of the Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Olympics bomber who on March 7, 1998, videotaped himself cutting off one of his own hands with an electric saw at his home in Ladson (a suburb in Charleston, USA) to “send a message to the FBI and the media”. An FBI statement said they had “followed standard procedures in conducting the search for Eric Robert Rudolph, a fugitive charged with a fatal abortion clinic bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, including interviewing his brother Daniel Rudolph. Daniel Rudolph’s decision to maim himself is regrettable and totally unexpected, given the nature of the contacts between the FBI and himself”.

Finally, in Figueira da Foz (Portugal), Orico Silva cut off one of his fingers in court in an “act of despair” after the presiding judge refused his offer to settle a €170,000 debt and ordered that part of his farm had to be sold. While in court, Silva took some bank papers from his briefcase and noticed a butcher’s knife that he’d recently bought at a market. On impulse he cut off his index finger and cut it into three (using a court table as an impromptu chopping board).

Unless self-amputations are sexually motivated or as a result of Body Integrity Identity Disorder, it would appear that self-amputation is rarely discussed and/or researched in the academic literature. The cases highlighted here show that there are many other reasons for self-amputation that are not the result of any kind of mental illness including the necessary (for survival reasons), the unnecessary (criminal or political reasons), or the downright bizarre (as an act of macho bravado).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

CNN Interactive (1998). Bombing suspect’s brother cuts hand off with saw. March 9. Located at: http://www-cgi.cnn.com/US/9803/09/briefs.pm/rudolph.amputation/

Elst, M. (2010). 10 unbelievable amputation stories. Oddee.com, February 22. Located at: http://www.oddee.com/item_96982.aspx#vSieTkGlGQrmjjcI.99

Fox News (2007). Farmer cuts off right arm with pocket knife to save life. November 26. Located at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/11/26/farmer-cuts-off-right-arm-with-pocket-knife-to-save-life/

Gabbatt, A. (2009). Indonesian man survives quake by sawing off own leg. The Guardian, October 9. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/oct/09/indonesian-earthquake-survivor-saws-leg

Harkins, D. (2008). The 6 most horrifying ways anyone ever got rich. Cracked.com. September 22. Located at: http://www.cracked.com/article_16633_the-6-most-horrifying-ways-anyone-ever-got-rich_p2.html

Kennedy, J.M. (2003). CMU grad describes cutting off his arm to save his life. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 9. Located at: http://old.post-gazette.com/nation/20030509climbernat2.asp

Reuters (2009). Man cuts off finger in court over debt. January 16. Located at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/01/17/us-finger-idUSTRE50F5D420090117?feedType=RSS&feedName=oddlyEnoughNews&rpc=69

Smith, A., Cornford, P. & Maguire, P. (2003). Arm trapped a fearing fire, tough miner knew what to do.Sydney Morning Herald. June 30. Located at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/06/29/1056825279321.htm

Wikipedia (2013). Amputation. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amputation