Sometime in the 1940s, an improbable encounter occurred at a mental institution in Maryland. Two women, each of whom was institutionalized for believing she was the Virgin Mary, chanced upon one another and engaged in conversation. They had been chatting for several minutes when the older woman introduced herself as “Mary, Mother of God.”
“Why you can’t be, my dear,” the other patient replied, unable to conceive of such a notion. “You must be crazy. I am the Mother of God.”
“I’m afraid it’s you who are mixed up,” the first asserted, “I am Mary.”
A hospital staff member eavesdropped as the two Virgin Marys debated their identities. After a while the women paused to quietly regard one another. Finally, the older patient seemed to arrive at a realization. “If you’re Mary,” she said, “I must be Anne, your mother.” That seemed to settle it, and the reconciled patients embraced. In the following weeks the woman who had conceded her delusion was reported to be much more receptive to treatment, and she was soon considered well enough to be discharged from the hospital.
This clinical anecdote was retold in a 1955 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and a highly-regarded social psychologist named Dr. Milton Rokeach read it with great interest. What might happen, he wondered, if a psychologist were to deliberately pair up patients who held directly conflicting identity delusions? Perhaps such psychological leverage could be used to pry at the cracks of an irrational psyche to let in the light of reason. Dr. Rokeach sought and secured a research grant to test his hypothesis, and he began canvassing sanitariums for delusional doppelgängers. Soon he found several suitable subjects: three patients, all in state care, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. And he saw that it was good.
It’s a testament to the strength and versatility of the human brain that anyone with at least half of one tends to assume that their senses give them direct access to objective reality. The truth is less straightforward and much more likely to induce existential crises: the senses do not actually provide the brain with a multifaceted description of the outside world. All that the brain has to work with are imperfect incoming electrical impulses announcing that things are happening. It is then the job of neurons to rapidly interpret these signals as well as they can, and suggest how to react.
This neurological system has done a pretty good job of modelling the world such that the ancestors of modern human beings avoided getting eaten by sabre-toothed tigers before procreating, but the human brain remains relatively easy to fool. Optical illusions, dreams, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and the placebo effect are just a handful of familiar cases where what the brain perceives does not correspond to whatever is actually occurring. The formation of a coherent model of the world often relies on imagined components. As it turns out, this pseudo-reality in one’s imagination can be so convincing that it can have unexpected effects on the physical body.
One of the most common taboos across human societies of the past and present has been incest. Virtually every known culture has considered it repulsive, especially when involving siblings or a parent and child. The leading behavioural theory that has been proposed to account for the ubiquity of this aversion is known as the Westermarck effect, after Finnish scholar Edvard Westermarck, who proposed it in his 1891 book The History of Human Marriage. The idea of the Westermarck effect is that young children will become sexually/romantically desensitised to anyone they live in close contact with over the course of the first few years of their lives. That is, they will reach adulthood with no compulsion to consider a relationship with anyone they shared a home with in their early childhood. Note that crucially, the connection does not have to be biological; according to the theory, it applies just as readily to children adopted at a young age as to those raised by their birth parents. But since children are likely to be raised by at least one of their biological parents – about 97.5% of children in the U.S., according to the 2000 census – the effect is thought to have arisen through evolution because it reduces the chances of inbreeding, which can tie the gene-pool up in ugly knots of emergent recessive traits. It functions well in this respect. However, when a child is separated from biological family at an early age, there is no chance for the Westermarck effect to take hold; reunions between biological relatives who were separated much earlier sometimes lead into unforeseen emotional territory.
In the early decades of the twentieth century the discipline of psychology was still in its infancy, but beginning to make significant headway. Pioneering researchers were enthusiastically unraveling the human mind, and some were willing to go to alarming lengths to satisfy their curiosity.
One such trailblazer was a behaviorist named John B. Watson. In 1919, his curiosity was aroused after observing a child who showed an irrational fear of dogs. Watson supposed that a shiny new human would not possess an inborn fear of domesticated animals, but if “one animal succeeds in arousing fear, any moving furry animal thereafter may arouse it.” In order to satiate his scientific appetite, he undertook a series of experiments at Johns Hopkins University to determine whether an infant could indeed be conditioned to fear cute-and-cuddly animals by associating them with scary stimuli. A couple decades earlier Pavlov’s notorious dogs had been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell; Watson hoped to expand upon the concept.
In April 1985, it is rumored that a collection of executives gathered at their corporate headquarters for an emergency meeting. On the table before them sat six small canisters which had been smuggled from their chief competitor’s manufacturing plant. Inside the metal cylinders lurked a secret compound which represented the next strike in a long-running war: an altered version of their rival’s incredibly successful Merchandise 7X. The substance was scheduled to be released upon the public within mere days, and these men had assembled to assess the threat. They were aware that billions of dollars were at stake, but the true power of the revised chemistry was beyond their reckoning. Ultimately, the contents of these canisters would plunge the United States into a surreal turmoil the likes of which had never before been seen.
The 72 ounces of fluid were portioned into sampling containers and passed around the room with earnest resolve. Each man inspected his sample by ingesting it orally, then smacking his tongue to allow the solution full access to his taste buds. The men’s impressions were mixed, yet the Pepsi officials were forced to acknowledge that this “New Coke” represented a serious threat.
Today, the New Coke debacle of 1985 is usually looked upon as a blunder of monumental proportions; however the ill-fated reformulation ultimately became one of the most fortuitous and informative failures in human history.
“I don’t think I feel things the same way you do.”
The man sits at the table in the well-fitted attire of success—charming, witty, and instantly likeable. He is a confident, animated speaker, but he seems to be struggling with this particular point.
“It’s like… at my first job,” he continues, “I was stealing maybe a thousand bucks a month from that place. And this kid, he was new, he got wise. And he was going to turn me in, but before he got the chance I went to the manager and pinned the whole thing on him.” Now he is grinning widely. “Kid lost his job, the cops got involved, I don’t know what happened to him. And I guess something like that is supposed to make me feel bad, right? It’s supposed to hurt, right? But instead, it’s like there’s nothing.” He smiles apologetically and shakes his head. “Nothing.”
His name is Frank, and he is a psychopath.
In the public imagination, a “psychopath” is a violent serial killer or an over-the-top movie villain, as one sometimes might suspect Frank to be. He is highly impulsive and has a callous disregard for the well-being of others that can be disquieting. But he is just as likely to be a next-door neighbor, a doctor, or an actor on TV—essentially no different from anyone else who holds these roles, except that Frank lacks the nagging little voice which so profoundly influences most of our lives. Frank has no conscience. And as much as we would like to think that people like him are a rare aberration, safely locked away, the truth is that they are more common than most would ever guess.
Within a nondescript university laboratory, a neurobiologist reads aloud from her list of prepared phrases. In the adjoining room, a volunteer listens attentively with a collection of colorful wires trailing from his head. The needles on the electroencephalograph (EEG) flutter with each utterance, but most of the phrases prompt little discernible reaction from the testee. Among the long list of experimental sentences, however, a few provoke a peculiar response. The volunteer’s face muscles contract, and his body begins to convulse. His breathing becomes spasmodic, and he makes a series of involuntary, repeated vocalizations. For one informative moment, the EEG’s mechanical scribblings flap rapidly from margin to margin, providing a nugget of neurological gold.
The affliction under study is surprisingly common among humans. Though the episodes are usually transitory, they will occasionally erupt as intense, prolonged outbursts where bodily fluid containment is placed in jeopardy as the hapless victim collapses into a moist, quivering, rhythmically-vocalizing mass. Alarmingly, the phenomenon is highly contagious, and in extreme cases, it can even lead to death. Taken together, these remarkable bizarre symptoms are known as laughter, and although it is universal among human races and cultures, its processes and purpose are not yet fully understood.
It has long been observed— though not scientifically— that women seem to show a vague preference for men who are already spoken for. This observation is known as the wedding ring effect, and there are numerous competing theories as to why it may be. Some suggest that the wedding ring is a cue that a man is “safe,” a passing opportunity for empty flirting; while others theorize that the female psyche sees the ring as an indication that another woman has deemed him worthy. There is also the possibility that the increase in feminine attention is purely imagined, a way for a married man to reassure himself that he’s still got “it” (or for that matter, that he ever had “it” to begin with).
It is weighty philosophical matters like these which have plagued civilization since its inception, but like so many of the great riddles, the answer may be found in a fish—in this case in a little matter called guppy syndrome.