Strange Symbols Appearing in UK Are Reminiscent of the Toynbee Tiles

A typical Toynbee Tile

There are many ways one can express oneself in today’s world.  I choose the written word, others choose song, still others choose dance, photography, sculpture, paint, and even graffiti, and that last one presents some interesting, if cryptic, works for us to ponder.

Even within that…genre…of art, there are many types, styles, and motivations.  There are many perspectives on its value as a medium of art, and as a method of communication, but it can hardly be denied that as a form of self-expression, graffiti is as effective as any other, perhaps more so.

Of course, there are forms of graffiti that are more difficult to classify as a form of art, even though much effort goes into its design and execution, and its impact on our culture is undeniable.  The issue seems to be that the controversial and sometimes political nature of the form gets in the way, but as many would argue, myself included, the message conveyed by art is nearly always political, and if successful, is always intended to be controversially transformative.

There are works of graffiti that you might not readily identify as a work of art, though they are, undeniably.

One of the Uxbridge Markers

Very recently, reported through a YouTube video, a series of markers has been found spray painted on the ground in West London, UK.  The markers, which take the form of symbols – a square center dot, surrounded by radiating narrow triangles, causing the entire marker to appear as a stylized sun or possibly a windmill – appeared suddenly on the roadway near the intersection of Grove Road and Grove Way in Uxbridge, London.  The YouTube video, shot and uploaded by an English woman going by the name Maria Speechley, clearly shows the symbols or markers as found, which are all white and apparently quite fresh.  Speechley reported the find to the Uxbridge news outlet getwestlondon, who published a public call for more information and further sightings on March 26.

Speechley, through the video, offers commentary and excited speculation about the appearance and purpose of the markers, claiming that no one knows who made them, or when.  She briefly theorises that they could have some secret purpose, possibly related to aliens or a secret society, but Alan Hayes of getwestlondon wisely reminds that local police have warned of these symbols, citing that they are sometimes used by nefarious types to mark possible locations for burglary.

Arnold J. Toynbee

One thing is perfectly clear, however, and that is that such graffiti, as this could only be described, serves its purpose well, in that it has caught the attention of passers-by, and has conveyed a message, inaccurate as it may be.

The strange and cryptic nature of the Uxbridge symbols reminds of other, much more mysterious works of graffiti art around the world.  Specifically, the Toynbee Tiles.

The Toynbee Tiles are a series of placards that have somehow been embedded into the pavement of roadways in various cities across the US.  They typically consist of a rectangular sign, often about the size of an American license plate (30cm by 15cm), and they display some variation of the text below.

IN MOViE `2001

So what, exactly, does that mean?  No one really knows, but there are several theories.

Just based on the text alone, there is a definite reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Both through the words “movie ‘2001” and by the reference to Jupiter.  Some versions of the tiles actually name Kubrick directly, but this might be explained away.

Hal, from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

There’s also the clear reference to Arnold J. Toynbee, who was a prolific British historian best known for his study of the rise and fall of 26 different civilizations throughout human history.  Some argue that this isn’t a direct reference to Toynbee, but rather is a reference to Ray Bradbury’s short story called The Toynbee Convector, which was inspired, at least in name, by A.J. Toynbee.

Those references, however, are the only parts of the Toynbee Tile mystery that are clear, or relatively clear, as the case may be.  What they mean, either the tiles or the references, is still totally open for debate.  As anyone who’s seen 2001 can tell you, the reference to Jupiter and resurrecting the dead comes straight from Kubrick’s imagination, but what it means with respect to Toynbee or the purpose of the tiles remains a complete mystery.

The originator of the tiles remains unidentified, even though a Toynbee Tile researcher claims to have uncovered several letters written by the maker in the early 1990’s, which apparently allude to a passage from Arnold Toynbee’s book Experiences (Pages 139-142):

“Human nature presents human minds with a puzzle which they have not yet solved and may never succeed in solving, for all that we can tell. The dichotomy of a human being into ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is not a datum of experience. No one has ever been, or ever met, a living human soul without a body… Someone who accepts—as I myself do, taking it on trust—the present-day scientific account of the Universe may find it impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again; but, if he did entertain this belief, he would be thinking more ‘scientifically’ if he thought in the Christian terms of a psychosomatic resurrection than if he thought in the shamanistic terms of a disembodied spirit.”

The possible connection to Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector, might suggest that the originator wished to convey the message that humanity needs to, in his or her view, strive for greater achievements in order to successfully move into the future.  Some have said that the reference to Jupiter means that the message is to travel to and colonise the planet.  A lofty goal indeed.

There are others who believe that there are connections to Arthur C. Clark’s Jupiter V, and at least one person believes that the tiles are an homage to playwright David Mamet and his 1983 play titled 4A.M.  Namely Mamet himself, who has often claimed to be greatly flattered by the honour.

Some of the Toynbee Tiles attempt to incite others to create and lay their own

Most of the tiles, of which there have been many over the years, first appeared in Philadelphia in the early-to-mid 1980’s, but they continue to appear across the US even today, and at least one has appeared in South America.  Though most if not all of the more recent examples are certain to be copy-cat tiles, placed by enthusiasts in order to honour the originator or to commemorate certain associated dates.

So far, the most compelling theory of how they are created and applied to the pavement as they are, was advanced by tile enthusiast Justin Duerr, who claims that they are a composite form made of layers of linoleum and some form of asphalt glue (whatever that may actually be), wrapped in tar paper.  Others claim that this composite construction is laid on roadways, inside the tar paper, and the action of vehicles driving over them crushes the form into the pavement and wears away the paper, ultimately revealing the tile.

There are, at least superficially, some parallels between the Toynbee Tiles and the Uxbridge markers, but perhaps we’re reading a bit much into it.  Whatever they are, in either case, the mystery may be worth more than any answers.  As it is, we are free to imagine that the tiles or the markers are some strange vestige of a world hidden away from us, a romantic and perhaps dark connection to a storyline beyond our understanding, and in that way it inspires our imaginations to conjure a reality that is larger than our own.  If, through finding answers to this mystery, we find that the elements of these things lie in something mundane, or nefarious, or – heaven forbid – commercial and manipulative, we would be worse off for it.

For now we can say that we do not know what they are or why they exist, we can revel in the idea that they hold a meaning worth protecting, and that makes them precious in their own right.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart – Immortality is a Weapon in the Hands of a Child

I recently brought you some discussion on the concept known as senescence, or in layman’s terms, the process of ageing.  My last post on this topic was focused on transhumanism and the potential that the transhumanist movement has to deepen the divide between the social classes.  That has been a contested position, but I maintain that the fruits of the fight against ageing will likely be held for the elite in our society, with unequal distribution of this artificial longevity for the rest of us.

Today though, I wanted to focus on some of the ways senescence might actually be defeated, and even within our lifetime – if such a term could be applied to this discussion.

I previously mentioned that work is already being done in the realms of DNA/RNA telomere reinforcement, which is believed will stop or reverse the ageing process.  Efforts are also being undertaken in the biotech arena, wherein researchers are attempting to develop nano-technology that would be capable of policing a person’s cellular function via their bloodstream, thereby removing ill-functioning cells and even replacing them with substitutes, whether artificial or not.

Those specific pursuits come from scientists working with the specific goals of transhumanism in mind, but there are others whose research in this venue is more…pragmatic, if you will.

Published in the science journal Cell in December of last year, is a study on the effect of varied NAD+ levels in mice, and its relation to pseudohypoxia in cellular communication.  The study bore some surprising results that, despite your current confusion about what you just read, is quite impressive.  I’ll explain.

One of the leading theories about the cause of senescence is embodied in the term pseudohypoxia.  Hypoxia is the term that described the process of cellular oxygen starvation, but pseuohypoxia refers to a different kind of cellular starvation.  All of the cells in our bodies require certain things to remain functional and efficient.  Oxygen is one of those things, obviously.  Other nutrients and chemicals are also necessary, but optimal cellular function depends on maintaining very specific ratios of various compounds, and the reduction of certain compounds, NAD+ for instance, has the effect of impairing communication between mitochondria and the cellular nucleus.  (NAD+ is an acronym representing the chemical compound nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, but for the purpose of understanding what’s happening, knowing what that compound really is, isn’t necessary.)

The paper, titled Declining NAD+ Induces a Pseudohypoxic State Disrupting Nuclear-Mitochondrial Communication During Ageing served to confirm the relatively long held idea that a decrease in the efficiency of nuclear-mitochondrial communication was at least partially responsible for the effects of ageing.[1]  This study demonstrated that NAD+facilitates communication between cellular mitochondria and the cell nucleus.  It turns out that this communication is imperative for regulating the body’s circadian clock, which in turn is regulated through the underlying process of senescence.  As we age there is less NAD+ available and thus that communication begins to break down.  The researchers in this case have found a direct correlation between the breakdown of that communication and the progress of ageing.  Basically, less NAD+ means further progression of age; more NAD+ means a reversal of age.

Well sure!  When you put it that way!

Once you get past the scientific mumbo jumbo, this story gets really fascinating.

What’s truly incredible about this study is how they went about confirming the above hypothesis.  Essentially, they fed NAD+ to mice, and what happened is nothing short of amazing.

Within a week of administering the first dosage of NAD+ to the mice, they demonstrated a marked reversal of senescence.  They got younger!  The mice exhibited significantly increased muscle tone, both in musculo-skeletal structures as well as cardiovascular and respiratory structures, and their metabolic processes were found to be the same or better than that of younger mice.  The scientific language used to describe this – that mitochondrial dysfunction contributes to ageing through postmitotic tissues that rely heavily on oxidative phosphorylation – is certainly a lot to take in, but in layman’s terms, what this means is that we now have a laboratory verified reversal of the ageing process.

These researchers defined what causes us to age as time passes.  And they reversed it!

There have since been a number of follow-up studies and papers, most of which serve to confirm the original conclusion and in some cases even further the potential.  It’s is predicted that human trials with NAD+ supplements will begin as soon as mid-to-late 2014, and while that’s an exciting prospect, there are some parts of this that are unclear, and some that are concerning.

What they’ve achieved, while impressive, is actually somewhat superficial.

Pandora’s Box – A John William Waterhouse painting

Increasing mitochondrial-nuclear communication apparently results in increased cellular function in muscle fibre, but it isn’t clear what effect that change would have on immune responses, or neural processes, or even DNA replication.  How would artificially altering senescence through these means affect fertility or embryonic development?  Would a person who underwent NAD+ therapy end up an old mind trapped in a young body?  Would their immune systems become too efficient, ultimately attacking healthy cells, in much the same way that many autoimmune diseases already do?

Or, in keeping with my earlier remarks, what if this does prove to be an effective way to reverse the ageing process?  Sounds great on the surface, but this might be an idea that looks better on paper than it does in the real world.  Sure, it would be nice to keep our parents around longer, or our pets even, but there are other considerations.  Biological attrition is an important, nay, an imperative part of human society.  How could we, as a society already encumbered by massive unemployment, homelessness, starvation, and mental illness, ever justify prolonging the life of one while virtually ignoring the poverty of another?

It may seem, from these words and from others I’ve written, that I’m opposed to the goals of transhumanism, or to the scientific effort to combat ageing, though I assure you, I’m not.  I see the value in this endeavour.  I see the potential of the research.  And I feel the same excitement as everyone else at the prospect of gaining control over senescence.  Where I stand apart though, is in feeling free to proceed with this journey before we, as a people, are ready to deal with the repercussions.  We should not be taking this step forward, not yet.  Not until we have eliminated poverty, eradicated inequality, decimated illiteracy, and at least begun to be able to live among each other without violence, and jealousy, and fear of the differences between us.  Our general bigotry and indifference toward the plight of others is a giant neon sign on the horizon, telling us in flashing day-glow colours, that we aren’t ready to become immortal.

“The principal and indeed the only thing wrong with this world is man.” – Carl Jung

[1] Ana P. Gomes et al. Declining NAD+ Induces a Pseudohypoxic State Disrupting Nuclear-Mitochondrial Communication During Ageing. Cell Press (Science Direct) Vol 155, Issue 7 – 19 December 2013.

Who Knew the US Army was in the Business of Building Pyramids?

With all of the pyramids around the world, it seems clear that the ancients had an affinity for lasting architecture.  They built things to withstand the winds of time.  At least, they built certain things to last.  Temples, tombs, ceremonial chambers and all kinds of sacred sites litter the landscape all across this planet, each one from an age lost to antiquity.  Often, though, what didn’t survive alongside these megaliths, was any notion about what they were, why they were built, or how they were built.  Sure, scholars are relatively certain that they’ve deciphered lost texts and cryptic hieroglyphics, and thus believe they have a decent grasp on answers to those questions, but there are many people who don’t agree that conventional wisdom in this regard is all that solid.

All this confusion (though either side of the argument will tell you they aren’t confused at all), stems from one single aspect of ancient architecture, and that is that we have to guess at their significance.  Whether we’re on the mark with that guess or not, we will still never know for certain that we’re right.  These buildings and monuments that were built as long as 5000 years ago (or older, in some cases) are enigmatic shadows of cultures past, but what will happen in another 5000 years?

Will our legacy civilizations be just as perplexed by the purpose and significance of our buildings, should any survive that long?  Will they argue amongst themselves about whether we had the technical expertise and engineering prowess to construct the wonders of our ancient time?

Perhaps not.  Record keeping is the primary mitigator in this war of attrition.  Most of the records we use to study ancient culture and architecture are fragments of texts written in lost languages, and our understanding of their meaning is pieced together through a process of comparison to other better known artefacts.  Our records, it could be argued, are much more complete and decipherable than those of ancient cultures.  At least they are now, but who’s to say what will happen over five millennia or more?

In a strange parallel to the pyramids of old, there are similar structures, built in recent years, with modern technology, and for modern purposes, that might serve as a future analogue to the questions posed above.

In the early 1970’s, as a part of the United States Army Safeguard anti-ballistic missile program, the US military built an early-warning detection and defence compound near Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The facility, known as the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, achieved operational status on September 28, 1975, but its lifespan was short lived.  It was decommissioned on February 10, 1976, less than a year after it all began.

El Castillo temple at ChichÈn Itz· (on the Yucat·n Peninsula in present-day Mexico), taken during the 1889 expedition of British archeologist Alfred P. Maudslay (1850-1931).

The site consists of the large pyramid shaped building, which was the missile control building and PAR “backscatter radar” station, as well as 100 ICBM-launcher inside some 70 missile silos, and some service buildings.  There is a vast underground tunnel network associated with the site, which was flooded following its decommissioning, presumably to discourage unauthorised use.

The SRMSC has sat empty, in the wastes of North Dakota for nearly four decades, unused and untouched.  It is a ghost of the cold war and of our government’s fear of intercontinental attack by competing world powers, but it lays there, impotent and broken, and when you look at pictures of this vestige of our military past, it’s hard to miss the resemblance to certain ancient megalithic sites.

Those similarities, while striking, are superficial, but will the effect such structures have on the imagination of future archaeologists be any different if records of its construction and use don’t survive the ages?  Can you imagine a group of wide-eyed tourists walking among the monolithic buildings, gazing at the huge pyramid in the distance, wondering why it was built and what it meant to those who used it?  Will future curiosity seekers marvel at our advanced understanding of radar technology, electronics, and ballistics?  Will some element of their society cling to the notion that we were more – or less – than their own conventional wisdom suggests?

Cultural evolution progresses at a startling rate; in a matter of 300 years, whole language systems can become almost unrecognisable.  Iconography becomes distorted and knowledge bases shift between world powers.  War, emigration, social and financial collapse, natural disaster, all of these things could change the course of our cultural evolution en-route to unimaginable places in the future, and once our progeny reach their destination, will they recognise what they see behind them, or will they be just as baffled by their past, as we are by ours?

The SRMSC is named after a US Military hero, the former commander of the US Army Air Defense Command, Lieutenant General Stanley R. Mickelsen.  He enjoys a certain renown among military historians as the force behind the US air defense artillery’s development from an era of guns to an era of missiles.  Of all the ways such a man’s legacy could have been carried into the future, joining the Mayan chiefs and Egyptian Pharaohs as a historic character forever tied to an enigmatic monument may not have been in the original design plan.

Chaos Magick and Commodore 64s: Why traditional ceremonial magick is waning in the new Aeon

I’ve had a computer nearly my entire 33 years. In fact, I still remember the command line sequence to boot up games on my long dead Commodore 64(LOAD”*”,8,1 if you cared). I’ve had imbedded in me the idea that a simple command line, or the pressing of ‘start’ can call into existence, rather quickly, an entire new reality in which I could exist. And, because of Commodore 64, I think Chaos Magick matters in this, the “New Aeon.”

If you’re not familiar with the “New Aeon,” it’s simply the newest stage in humanity: The Age of Aquarius; The Satya Yuga; The New Age; there’s quite a few more names for it, but you get the idea. I use the “New Aeon,” as coined by occultist supreme Aleister Crowley because he is seen as the last great mage of the old age, or the first of the new… either way he’s on top of the pyramid of the secret and the arcane.

But what does a command line from an ancient computer have to do with Chaos Magick and Aleister Crowley, you ask? Nothing really, it’s called a metaphor, deal with it.

What I’m getting at is that my generation and the ones following me have an innate sense and capability to enter into altered states with nothing more complex than a few keystrokes, or hitting ‘start.’ We’re a fast thinking and reacting lot who have come to accept the ease at which a suburban basement could change into a battle ground on which the forces of the evil King Koopa could be vanquished by a humble human plumber and some magic mushrooms. We don’t need to know how to program a computer, or build it from scratch to understand how warp zones work, or how to play Summer Games… we just know it works and how to get to the action as expediently as possible.

Traditional ceremonial magick is like the old guard computer programmers steadfastly claiming that knowing binary is key to knowing computers… and you know what? They’re pretty spot on, except for one small point: we don’t need to know how it works to make it work. Traditional ceremonial magick, and to beat this metaphor to death slightly more, computer programmers are excellent at what they do… they’re amazing. I wish I knew Assembler/binary, and I wish I knew how to chart my exact horoscope including all the arcane overlaps, ascensions, descensions, and whatever else goes into it. That stuff is pretty amazing. But, as with my trusty commodore, I can type a few words and get the same result… Ah, there’s the rub, chaos magick.

It’s as easy as you want it to be: get yourself in a magickal mindset, ,8,1, ENTER, and the world can be changed… so long as you believe it can be changed. That’s the tricky part, and where the binary starts to hurt: you have to believe… well, that’s easy if you play acted being Link, Mario, Kung Fu, or Panama Joe(from the horribly named Montezuma’s Revenge) you’re built for the sort of altered states magickal practice needs to be effective. However, some people need vast charts of zodiacal signs and alchemical symbols; they need the perfect date for the perfect spell; they need the right herbs burning and the right angels watching or the mood won’t be right, the altered state of the magician doesn’t come. But the new Aeon seems to be screaming to us, the short attention span magicians; the eaters of fire-flowers and magic mushrooms; the children of a quantum age that have been raised to accept that something called ‘spooky action at a distance’ is a real thing- That a new reality is just a click or two away. We are a generation that accepts a mutable reality as the norm; just as our forefathers accepted the then accepted mechanistic/Newtonian reality. The rituals and structures of any given time reflect the understandings of that time. Just as you’d not expect an ancient Egyptian to preach democracy; you’d not expect a modern physicist to preach an A to B linear description of reality.

I’m not trying to dismiss traditional ritual magick. In fact I think it’s damn fantastic. I love the ceremony; I love the pomp; I love the arcane symbols; I love it all… but I don’t have time to wade through generations of magickal technique just to realize all you’ve learned is symbolic psychedelia: you’ve just taken 30 years of study to achieve that magickal trance-like state where real magick can happen.

Well, the computer made everything faster, from information gathering, to dating, to magick. Please, follow your hermetic traditions; be Gnostic; draw pentagrams and call forth guiding angels; I’ll be happy when you do. But I’m fine listening to binaural beats with a head full of video game logic and semi-legal marijuana, changing my personal reality to fit my personal sense of magic. We’re gifted the ability to enter into the magickal state much more easily than our more learned forefathers, those of the ancient arts of binary coding, and those of the eldritch libraries full of arcane texts.

The Greater Keys of Solomon are perfect in all their ancient grimoire glory; but I think that I’ll stick to that old 8bit reality- called forth with a simply keystroke, and a more modern form of magickal awareness.

The Truth About Pattern Recognition – Apophenia is our Bane and Boon

Why do we assign so much importance to coincidences?  Let me paint a picture for you…

It’s been a busy day so far, you’ve been working hard all morning, completing tasks, planning, sorting, creating, and all this time you’ve really been so focused on your work that you have hardly noticed the passage of time since you started.  But in a sudden moment of clarity, you glance at the clock and wouldn’t you know it, the digital readout says 11:11!

You think to yourself ‘Hey!  That’s cool!’ and then you remember…the same thing happened last Tuesday.  Does this mean something?  Was I supposed to notice this?

That’s an experience many people have had, and you can substitute pretty much any time of day, perhaps 3:33, or even swap in the hand positions on an analog clock.  What makes it significant though?

Does it have an inherent meaning, or are we assigning that meaning out of some psychological need to find order in our world?  I lean toward the latter, but I think it has more to do with perspective than anything else.

Think about this scenario.

You work hard and save up your pennies, and after an unreasonably long time saving, you finally have enough for a down payment on a brand new car!  You choose the car you want for various reasons; it looks nice to you, you like the brand, it gets good mileage, maybe it’s even a status symbol of sorts.  But whatever caused you to buy it, it’s yours.  It’s uniquely you, and you’re proud to be seen driving around town in it.  And then you notice something…these cars are everywhere!  It seems like everyone has one; same colour, same model…same car!  Suddenly your personal statement of individuality doesn’t seem so unique.

A standard Rorschach inkblot card

Why did everyone, including your neighbour three doors down – who you could have sworn drove an old jalopy last week – go out and buy the same damn car as you?  Well, my friend…they didn’t.

It might be easier to see what’s happening in that second scenario than in the first, but I assure it, it’s precisely the same mechanism at work.

Our brains are amazing organs.  They might just be the most complex structure in the universe (though this isn’t limited to our brains, it applies to all brains), and they work exceedingly well considering all that complexity.  Though they aren’t perfect.  There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a brain, and of the many, many ways they can misbehave, there are even more ways that such misbehaviour can manifest in the creature that owns it.  But let me make perfectly clear; the mechanism that causes us to see significance in random and even mundane events is not an imperfection.  In fact, we couldn’t live without it.

Patterns.  That’s the root of all coincidence.  Our brains have evolved to be very good at one particular thing, a thing that allows us to comprehend the reality in which we live; we are experts at recognising patterns.

The Martian Face is a famous example of pareidolia

Pattern recognition is often thought of in terms of visual stimulus.  There are many fun so-called brain teasers that challenge our perceptions through pictures that offer not-so-easily recognised patterns.  But the habit of sorting elements of our reality is an inherent process that is fundamental to the act of navigating life.  We do it with all of our senses, however many there may be, and that ability is tied in a very fundamental way to the fabric of space-time, believe it or not.  It is the very foundation of cognition, it is what we use to recognise the difference between people, things, sounds, feelings…everything.

Here’s the thing though, we’re so good at recognising patterns that we perceive them where they don’t actually exist.  That’s called false pattern recognition, or more commonly, apophenia.  That word has a simple meaning, a multifaceted meaning actually, but still simple.  We see patterns where none exist.

Apophenia – a term coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist (and Nazi), Klaus Conrad, in his principle work Die beginnende Schizophrenie. Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns (1958) – manifests in several ways, whether seeing faces or shapes (often anthropomorphic shapes) in amorphous media, such as the man in the moon, or shapes in clouds, or, as has recently become quite popular, figures in the mist of ghost photography.  This, specifically, is called pareidolia, which is a form of apophenia that specifically relates to sensory stimulus, i.e. sights and sounds.

Pareidolia is responsible for the vast majority of paranormal type experiences in the realm of ghosts and hauntings, despite what some may prefer to believe.  As mentioned, so-called ghost photography is predominantly the result of persons looking at images that often don’t make sense visually.  There are typically photographic anomalies present in the image(s) that, when studied, begin to take form, often that of a face or apparition, but when viewed impartially or independent of context, those forms are conspicuously absent.  Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or EVP, is another popular example of pareidolia, but as with other forms of sensory apophenia, pareidolia doesn’t act alone.

A man’s face or an odd collection of items that look like a face? (Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The Jurist.)

Other common psychological mechanisms join with apophenia to solidify our incorrect perceptions.  Confirmation bias is one, which is the tendency we have to seek out and accept information that serves to confirm our already held beliefs, and also to reject information that in any way denies our beliefs or our perception of experience.  Confirmation bias also works on the suggestion of what should be seen/heard in the presented media.  When someone shows you a picture or plays an audio recording, and they tell you what it is you should be seeing/hearing, your brain will try to fulfill that expectation.

These aren’t the only ways apophenia affects our perceptions though.  As good as we are at detecting patterns, there are a few things we’re really quite bad at, on the whole.  We, as a general rule, suck at statistical analysis.  That isn’t to say that we don’t have the mental apparatus to perform the task, or that some people don’t have a better grasp on it than others, but when it comes to judging the significance of an event statistically (without doing the math outright), we will almost always err on the side of greater importance than not.

There’s a very simple reason for that too.  It’s far less costly to designate an event or occurrence significant and be wrong, that to deem it insignificant and be wrong.  At least, that was the case for our ancestors on the plains of Africa 50,000 years ago.  In today’s world, however, we have different concerns than did our ancestors.  This, in fact, is precisely why recreational gambling even exists.  All who endeavour to win their fortune in the lottery or in casinos, drastically misjudges the odds of their winning against the house.  Gaming houses of all kinds are capitalising on your inherent inability to accurately understand the significance of various events during game play, to their great profit, I might add.

Your brain, it seems, is not to be trusted.  Its friends, your eyes and ears, aren’t exactly beacons of truth either.  When you combine the effects of apophenia with mechanisms like confirmation bias and the inherent flaws in our sensory equipment (the retinal blind spot for instance), it’s a wonder we can make any sense of our surroundings at all.  Of course, all of those apparent failings are in fact the very reason we can make sense of our surroundings.

If we didn’t have the power to see faces where they don’t exist, we might be prone to miss them where they do exist, and where they could be integral to our survival.  All of these aspects of our greater mind, which may seem fatally flawed, are in fact perfectly adapted to ensure our survival in this world.  The problem is, our world has changed, is changing, at a pace far in excess of our ability to adapt.  What worked for us 200 years ago, isn’t necessarily going to work in another 200 years, unless we begin to take control, and realise our failings, perhaps with the goal of using them to our advantage.

Is the Petit Rechain UFO Photo Hoax a Hoax Itself?

The Petit Rechain Photo

Some time ago I wrote a post titled Cornerstone UFO Cases.  It was what I call a ‘filler piece’, or what other’s might call fluff.  Not exactly breaking news or unique among the UFOlogy crowd.  It basically recapped or summarised the seven most famous or most important cases in UFOlogical history; from Roswell, to Rendlesham, to Zeta Reticuli.

One of the cases I highlighted was the Belgian Wave Incident.  That was a series of some 2000 UFO reports from Belgium in 1989-1990.  It is considered by many to be the quintessential triangle UFO case, (mainly because it’s actually the first mass triangle UFO case).  The Belgian Wave flap, as some call it, is characterised by a single photograph.  That photograph is known as the Petit Rechain photo – so named for the Belgian town in which it was taken, allegedly.

The Petit Rechain photo was taken by an anonymous photographer known to the world only as “Patrick”.  It became a worldwide sensation just four months following the height of the Belgian Wave incident, and according to original assessments it shows, in unprecedented clarity, a large craft, triangle in shape, illuminated at its three corners by some type of light source, with a fourth light at its center.  The photo is distorted, and seems to show movement blur that at first blush seems consistent with the aerial characteristics of an aircraft.  As a result of all this apparent clarity and detail, the photo has been the subject of a great deal of speculation and study over the 24 years since it first came to light, and it is often labelled the best photographic evidence for UFO’s in history.

The Petit Rechain photo has been subjected to photographic analysis, spectral analysis, and an in-depth study of its movement characteristics, and as a result, it has been held out as, not only 100% genuine and real, but it’s been claimed that it shows evidence of high powered electromagnetic energy surrounding the craft.

When it was released in 1990, the photo was analysed by a team at the French National Space Research Center (CNES) and later, former NASA scientist Dr. Richard Haines, and then by physicist Dr. Andre Marion.  All of whom agreed that the photo was not only genuine, but that it showed a real craft of unknown origin and with unique characteristics.

Seems like a ringing endorsement, doesn’t it?  Well, there are some problems, not the least of which is the fact that the photo is an admitted hoax.

Several months after I posted the Cornerstone UFO Cases piece, I received a comment on the article informing me that the Petit Rechain photo is a hoax; something of which I was unaware.  That comment provided a link to an article expounding on this hoax, and which in turn linked to a French language news article from (a Belgian online news paper).  This article makes an astounding claim; a claim that’s made its way into the Belgian Wave incident as fact – it’s even now referenced in the Wikipedia page for the incident.

The article states that “Patrick” has, after 21 years of complete anonymity, come forward to admit that he hoaxed the photo and the entire sighting (just his, not all 2000, obviously).’s article suggests, very matter-of-fact-ly, that “Partick”, at the time of the Belgian Wave Incident, was a pipe fitter at a small shop in Petit Rechain, Belgium.  He claims that he and two friends were amused by the furor over the recent UFO hoopla and they decided to prank their coworkers by creating a small UFO out of polystyrene and several unnamed objects, and then taking a picture of it when suspended from the ceiling.

“Patrick” claims that he didn’t intend to fool the entire planet, and that he expected someone to figure out the hoax soon after it broke in the world press, but no one ever did.

That isn’t entirely true though.  Skeptics have been attacking the Petit Rechain photo since day one, and more than one person has suggested exactly what claims is the truth of the matter.  The only thing lacking in the matter was the proverbial smoking gun, which it seems we now have in hand.

It seems that way, but that’s not really the case.

Critical thinking is a two way street.  Not only should we be skeptical of wild claims and extraordinary evidence, treating nothing as the truth until it can be confirmed and verified, but we also need to be skeptical of claims made by those who say they’ve solved the mystery!  Sometimes common sense is enough, but other times, these situations require a close look at details and scientific interpretation.  When that is the case, the solutions also require a close look at the details and scientific interpretation.

Here’s the problem. offers no detail whatsoever.  Not only is the author of the article not listed, neither is the researcher involved (though presumably they are one and the same).  They also provide zero evidence to corroborate the claims they make in the article.  “Patrick”, since day one, has been identified by that single anonymous monker.  No other information about who he is, where he comes from, what he did/does, or how he captured the photograph in question exists.  He is as much a mystery as the photograph.  Yet we’re now asked to believe that the intrepid reporter from not only found him, but cracked the case by interviewing this man, reviewing the evidence he has in hand, and printing the results.  But…no they didn’t.

“Patrick” is still anonymous.  We still have no idea who he is.  We still have no idea how he made the photo, aside from his seemingly flippant admission of hoax.  And as for that admission, without any of the information I just listed, how can anyone who claims to employ logic and reason believe that this man being referred to in this article is in fact, “Patrick”?  Someone please explain to me how we can accept the unsupported assertions of yet another voice in this debate from an article that consists of no more than five paragraphs of writing.  How are we supposed to know that the “Patrick” mentioned even exists, and isn’t just this reporter trying to fool everyone himself?  Nothing is offered in that article that can be considered solid information.  If this situation were reversed, wherein the claim that the photo is genuine were to come in the form of the article, the skeptical community would be falling out of their chairs in laughter at the idea that they should take it seriously.  So why are we supposed to accept the claim of hoax with so little credibility?

I have doubts about the validity of the Petit Rechain photo, but when I consider the intellectual weight of those who have performed in-depth analysis of it, I can’t help but think that the issue is a slight bit more complicated than the capital ‘S’ Skeptics would have us believe.  However, the doubts I have about its validity are massively outweighed by my doubts about this claim of hoax.  Yet, as is evidenced by the comment made on my previous article, and by the inclusion of this information in the Wikipedia page on this issue, it seems very few people have really given the issue any thought or attention.

Is the Petit Rechain photo hoax a hoax itself?  I think the odds are far better for that possibility than they are for the idea that “Patrick” has come forward after all these years to reveal that we’ve all been duped.  Call me skeptic, I dare you.

Extended Musings on Determinism and the Origin of Consciousness

I’m reading a book.  It’s a book written by a friend.  I call him a friend even though I’ve not met him, nor, likely, will I ever meet him.  That isn’t why I’m reading it though.  I’m reading it because it covers a topic that is dear to me, a topic that has vexed me for many, many years: Death.

No, I’m not a brooding and morbid existentialist.  Actually, now that I think about it, yes I am, but that’s neither here nor there.  It isn’t the spectre of death that interests me.  It isn’t some dark obsession with evil or gore or fear that has me vexed.  It is, as I think my previous writings have demonstrated, the mind-body question that has my attention.  It is the divide between the deterministic world view and the spiritualist world view.  It’s an intellectual pursuit driven by a single question: what’s next?

I mentioned the book I’m reading, which is Greg Taylor’s Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (Daily Grail Publishing 2013), because even though I really just started it, my friend has gotten me to thinking – not a terribly difficult thing to achieve, I’ll admit.  The second chapter is dedicated to one particular aspect of the mind-body question, or more specifically the question of “what’s next?”  It deals with the idea of death-bed visions.

If you are at all familiar with my writings on this subject, you’ll probably already know my take on these matters, but I will say that Greg’s thoughts on the subject have affected my view.  It should be known that I intend to provide an in-depth review the book upon finishing it, what follows, however, is not a review, but rather is my take on one aspect of its contents.

Death-bed visions are, much like near-death experiences, almost archetypal to the process of dying.  At first glance they seem like an esoteric experience based in delusion, or hallucination, but upon further reading, one inevitably finds that not only are death-bed visions far more common than most anyone realises, but they are surprisingly similar among accounts.  There are literally thousands of documented death-bed vision experiences, and, even by the most conservative estimates, millions of undocumented experiences.  Depending on who you ask, these experiences seem nearly ubiquitous.

I will be dedicating an entire post (perhaps two) to the topic of death-bed visions, as it holds much potential to understand what happens to us when/as we die, for now though, I’d like to focus on an issue that, according to some, predicates all other issues on the topic of the mind-body question: Determinism.

Don’t run away just yet!  I know, determinism is a dirty word.  I know that the philosophy of life is one of the topics our betters have warned us not to discuss in polite company, amongst other subjects like politics and religion, but come on…take a risk with me.

Determinism says that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.  Which means, in simpler terms, that there is a physical cause or origin, rooted in nature, for all aspects of reality.

Greg Taylor, a wiser man among many wise men, has asserted in his book that a deterministic world view is flawed.  He says that it’s inadequate, and that experiences like death-bed visions are evidence that determinism is an infantile pet concept of aggressive atheists and modern philosophers of mind.

It’s true, many so-called angry atheists subscribe to the deterministic view of biology.  P.Z. Meyers is quoted as saying:

“If many object to the idea that human identity emerges gradually during development, they’re most definitely going to find the idea of soullessness and mind as a by-product of nervous activity horrifying. This will be our coming challenge: to accommodate a view of ourselves and our place in the universe that isn’t encumbered by falsehoods and trivialising myths.”

Richard Dawkins has made similar statements, as have several other popular atheists in the limelight.  Meyer’s words embody the argument, but don’t really counter it.  He seems to dismiss, or conveniently omit one very important aspect, one that features prominently in Greg Taylor’s argument, and that is that consciousness appears to be pointedly non-deterministic.

This position is valid.  It’s demonstrated in the phenomena associated with the afterlife, though in the interest of intellectual honesty, that phenomena isn’t readily accepted by those who don’t subscribe to any kind of religious tradition.  It is largely unquantifiable, which is precisely why it sits in opposition to determinism.  That doesn’t mean it should be dismissed, it means only that it should be recognised as less valuable to the discussion than some would prefer.  It doesn’t end there though.

A non-deterministic view of consciousness is also supported through quantum physics.  Some might suggest that this is no more measurable than afterlife phenomena, and to those unfamiliar with the complex ideas and theories held in quantum mechanics, that might be true, but concepts like entanglement, uncertainty, and even zero point fields are quite real and measurable.

But we needn’t go that far in our pursuit of ways to quantify consciousness.

I recently wrote about some (relatively) new and exciting brain scanning techniques emerging from the field of biomedicine in neuroscience.  In an unrelated post, I discussed the possibility that geomagnetic energy might be affecting our brains and causing hallucinations of a sort; hallucinations that are in turn perceived as paranormal experiences.  As a result of that post, and the commentary that followed, I came to realise that the evidence for determinism is now stronger than ever, and the reason is much simpler than quantum physics.

It’s true that there really is no disconnection between people.  In fact, there is no real disconnection between anything that exists.  All matter – and energy – are made of up fundamental particles.  This is true for what we would call solid sovereign objects; they exist in relative separateness from all other objects, but this is an illusion.  It’s easy to visualise the connectedness of objects that exist inside a medium like water, wherein the idea that the water acts to connect objects is somewhat intuitive.  The idea, of course, is that the molecules, the atoms that make up the water, are in constant contact with the molecules and atoms of the objects in question, thereby forming an unbroken – and some might say unbreakable – chain between object, medium and object.

The same is true for any object that exists in any medium, such as the atmosphere of the earth for instance.  What we call air is no different than water, in that it is made up of fundamental particles; molecules and atoms, and as a result, those things that exist within it are fundamentally connected to any and all other objects that exist within the same medium.

But are we talking about anything more than just atomic proximity?  The determinist would probably argue no, we are not; while the dualist might argue the opposite.  Myself, I side with the dualist; standing next to a light post, no more makes me a light post than it makes the light post me.  Proximity alone is not enough confer connectedness in the sense offered by dualists.

Interaction is the key factor in demonstrating the connectedness of two (or more) objects or entities.  This is embodied in my geomagnetically induced hallucinations post.  As I mentioned in that post, the new brain scanning technology called transcranial electrical stimulation, or TES, and its variants, uses electrical impulses to affect specific areas of the brain as may be targeted for medical or research purposes.  Those effects are varied and of themselves are quite interesting, but what’s important here, is the fact that an outside device can affect the cognitive function of a human brain.  It does this by projecting electromagnetic energy into the brain in finely tuned ways and frequencies.  In fact, as this technology develops, in conjunction with other technologies and techniques, researchers are able to more finely target specific brain regions, allowing them to pin point and map what regions of the brain are responsible for what cognitive or behaviour processes, on an almost one-to-one scale.

It may not need to be said at this point, but the very fact that this can be done, stands as the strongest evidence yet that cognition – that is thoughts, feelings, motives, etc – are the product of nothing more than the biomechanical nature of the brain.  It says that consciousness is not only housed directly in the brain, but also originates there.

Obviously, this idea is diametrically opposed to the dualism of mind philosophy, and some of its proponents would argue, as an analogy, that my television depends on both its internal components and the signal provided by my cable company in order to work properly.  Disrupting either will cause problems.

I agree, that seems reasonable, but our brains are not TV’s.

The false analogy between televisions and brains offers an inaccurate picture of the issue.  Firstly, a TV has an obvious connection to the signal provider – a cable, or in some cases a wireless transceiver – but our brains do not.  Mammalian brains, or even lower order brains for that matter, have no apparatus for sending or receiving signals of any kind.  In the case of a television, if you physically disconnect the source of the signal, the set will not work (properly).  You can even go so far as to enclose the TV in a Faraday cage, and the effect will be that no signal of any kind can reach its transceiver, thus it will not work.

This isn’t so in the case of a human brain.  A person can be isolated in every way we can imagine, and yet their brain continues to function; we see no interruption in consciousness whatsoever.  If you were to place a human inside a Faraday cage – which will block any electromagnetic signal or field, depending on the size of the mesh – there is no effecton consciousness.

You might argue that there are fundamental energies that we don’t yet understand, so it’s possible that such energies require receiving/transmitting apparatus that we might not recognise.  It’s also possible that whatever signal or energy might be responsible for consciousness isn’t electromagnetic in nature, thus wouldn’t be affected by shielding.  However, as I’m sure you’re aware, there are only four fundamental forces (read energies) in the universe: electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.  So there is little else to work with, even when you factor in the mysterious zero point energy, the existence of which is as yet still only an untested hypothesis.

I can already hear the argumentative machinations of the dualists winding up.  “But there could be an energy that we just haven’t discovered yet!”  Sure, there could, but we’ve seen zero evidence of such an energy in all other endeavours.  Nature isn’t that wasteful.  The four fundamental forces are found everywhere.  They have an effect on everything…all four of them.  How could it be that there is another energy that only affects consciousness and which doesn’t interact with the other four in any way?

There are other counterarguments though, such as the universality of near-death experiences and the related imagery, not to mention death-bed visions as mentioned above.  Though, the outside influence of a controlling or supplying energy isn’t required to explain those phenomena.  Even if you dismiss the delusion/hallucination explanations typically offered by those pesky determinists, there is still room for explanations for those experiences that doesn’t invoke mysterious new energies, magic, or omnipotent deities.

For the record, I’m still on the fence, which is a position I wish more people would take up.  This issue, among all others, is the one issue that does not warrant certainty from either side.

Happy Birthday Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Thanks for all the Laughs!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, KStj, DL

Happy Birthday Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you were a giant on whose shoulders many currently stand.  A pity you weren’t more like your title character, Sherlock Holmes.

The above paragraph may read as a little inflammatory, perhaps snide as well, but it’s not without reason.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, born 22 May 1859 in Edinburg, Scotland, was, as some would like to claim, the father of modern crime writing.  He wasn’t, actually, as that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe, but it’s a small quibble.  In popular culture, the uncontested, most famous literary detective is, quite obviously, Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes was the main character in Conan Doyle’s magnum opus, which consisted of four books and more than 50 short stories.

Of course, we all know exactly who Sherlock Holmes is – with his recent popularisation on the big screen by Robert Downey Jr. – his characteristic logic, astute observation, and keen intellect and his impressive memory (along with his hat and pipe) have become a symbol in our culture for intelligence and well-reasoned inquiry.  Conan Doyle crafted, not only a character, but a mythos; unfortunately it wasn’t a self-portrait.

You see, while Conan Doyle was a brilliant author and could rightly be considered a genius in his own right, deductive reasoning and logic weren’t his strong suits, not by a long shot – despite evidence to the contrary.  Even though he is most famously known as a classical author of fiction (across multiple genres), it’s true that his focus wasn’t always on writing novels.  He was a trained physician, and, for a time, a political activist, a keen footballer and cricketer, and a husband and father.  He was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902, was a member of the Venerable Order of St. John, and held the military commission of Deputy Lieutenant.

In addition to all of the above, he was also a leading voice in the Spiritualist movement of the turn of the 20th century.  Following the deaths of his first wife in 1902, and the death of his son, Arthur Kingsley, in 1918, as well as other deaths in his immediate circle, Conan Doyle became obsessed with spiritualism and the afterlife.

In fact, he was one of the original members of the renowned, and possibly the first ever paranormal research society: The Ghost Club.

Conan Doyle’s spiritualist exploits are colourful, to say the least.  He wrote in support of spiritualism in his Professor Challenger (another of his detective characters) novel The Land of Mist (1926) – this was a companion to his earlier novel The Lost World (1912). That book was essentially his coming out in support of what he believed to be an extremely important, but undervalued part of life.  Although his predilection for spiritualism wasn’t exactly a secret prior to this book.

Perhaps his most famous foray into the weird, was his rather loud endorsement of the Cottingley Fairies, which carried the story of Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths around the world, making their fairy photos famous.  Unfortunately, the photos were a hoax; and looking back, it’s seems difficult to see how anyone believed the story in the first place, let alone the mind that brought us Sherlock Holmes.

In his quest for answers, Conan Doyle befriended the one and only Harry Houdini. Oh the conversations those two must have had!  Though, Houdini wasn’t a man to be fooled by the trifling ploys of little girls; he was arguably the most successful debunker of charlatan psychics, mediums, and flim-flam artists that there ever was.  Despite his reputation as possibly the best magician and escape artist that ever lived, Houdini was an avowed skeptic, and was vocal about the fraud being perpetrated by those in the spiritualist movement.  And thus, their brief friendship came to an embarrassing and very public end when they couldn’t reconcile their philosophical differences.  Interestingly, Conan Doyle continued to assert that Houdini himself had supernatural or divine powers, most notably in his book The Edge of the Unknown (1930).  Not surprisingly though, Houdini vehemently denied this, and even tried to show Conan Doyle how the various tricks were done, but was apparently unsuccessful in convincing the great writer of the truth.

Conan Doyle once teamed up with fellow writer and spiritualist William Thomas Stead, and the two of them began promoting the psychic powers of Danish stage magicians and occult authors, Julius and Agnes Zancig.  Though, the husband and wife team later confessed that their entire act was fake.  He was also responsible for popularising the world famous tale of the ghost ship Mary Celeste, through his short story titled J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Perhaps the most interesting factoid about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – one that is relatively unknown in popular culture – is his status as one of the prime suspects in the Piltdown Man hoax.

by; published by Herbert Rose Barraud; Eglington & Co.,photograph,published 1893

Arthur Conan Doyle, a portrait by Herbert Rose

If you’re unfamiliar, the Piltdown Man hoax is the name given to the situation that unravelled out of a submission to the Geological Society of London in 1912, wherein amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson presented what he believed was fossilised bone evidence in support of a previously unknown early hominid species.  This created quite a stir in the paleoanthropological community, as you might imagine, and the find was heralded as one of the greatest in modern history.  That is until, in 1953, it was determined that the bones were a deliberate hoax.

Now, while the case is still officially unsolved, as to who perpetrated the hoax, most believe it was Dawson.  Some people claim though, that Dawson didn’t have the expertise needed to pull it off.  Some believe that Conan Doyle was better suited for the crime, and with the fact that he lived near Piltdown, and had the relevant and necessary knowledge and skill, he seems a decent candidate…but why?

Well, American historian of science, Richard Milner, claims that, not only did Conan Doyle have the expertise, he had the motive – he wanted to embarrass the scientific community as revenge for debunking his favourite psychic – and he apparently wove cryptic clues to his involvement with the hoax into his novel, The Lost World.

“If you are clever and know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World

Arthur Conan Doyle certainly isn’t the only name on the suspect list for the Piltdown Man hoax, and there are holes in that particular theory, but his name is still on the list.  It would seem, too, that if he did in fact perpetrate the most successful paeleoanthropological hoax ever conceived, then perhaps his mind was more logical than one might think.

Conan Doyle died of a heart attack at the age of 71 on 7 July 1930, he would today be 155 years old.  So, Happy Birthday Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and thank you for all you did to entertain us.

Toad-in-a-Hole: The Weird Story of Entombed Animals

An alleged petrified toad found inside a stone

There’s some pretty weird stuff in this world, and much of it was chronicled by my personal hero Charles H. Fort.  His work spawned an entire field of study, though there are those who balk at the suggestion that Forteana is anything but pure pseudoscience.  I disagree, clearly.

Forteana covers a wide range of phenomena; from teleportation, to weird rain, to strange lights in the sky.  In fact, all of the phenomena covered under the terms occult, supernatural, and paranormal can be considered Fortean.  There’s a lot to read.

One such phenomena – one I don’t think Fort himself ever investigated, but I could be wrong – is Entombed Animals.

No, that’s not some elaborate funeral rite for dearly departed pets, it’s the strange occurrence of animals – usually frogs, but sometimes small lizards and other animals – being found encased inside rock (and other material).  Strange indeed, but it gets stranger.

Of the 200-some reported cases of entombed animals, the vast majority found the animal alive…fully encased inside a void within the rock, or whatever material was involved.  This, obviously, raises a few pertinent questions.  Chiefly, how’d they get in there, and how are they still alive?

As mentioned, there are more than 200 known cases of entombed animals throughout Europe, North America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand since the fifteenth century.  Some more notable than others, for example:

  • In 1761, physician to Henry III of France, Ambroise Pare, reportedly found in a large and hard stone, a “…huge toad, full of life and without any visible aperture by which it could get there.”
  • Scientific American published an article in 1864 describing the experience of a silver miner named Moses Gaines, who found a toad living inside a large boulder.[1]  It was said that the toad had strange eyes that were much larger than those of other toads of the same species.
  • 68 live toads were found inside a tree trunk in South Africa in 1876: “They were of a light brown, almost yellow color, and perfectly healthy, hopping about and away as if nothing had happened. All about them was solid yellow wood, with nothing to indicate how they could have got there, how long they had been there, or how they could have lived without food, drink, or air.”

Surprisingly, some relatively famous names have been connected with the toad-in-a-hole phenomenon, as it’s sometimes called (not to be confused with the English sausage casserole dish). Benjamin Franklin most notably, who wrote An Account of Toads Found Enclosed in Solid Stone[2], as well as Charles Dickens and Julian Huxley.

Toad is not impressed by your enthusiasm for this idea

Predictably, modern science claims that the entire idea is nonsense, and it’s hard to disagree, but for the number and quality of the reports.  The journal Nature concluded, in 1910, that the explanation was quite simply “a frog or toad is hopping about while a stone is being broken, and the non-scientific observer immediately rushes to the conclusion that he has seen the creature dropping out of the stone itself.”  That is, admittedly, a little flimsy.

Renowned paleontologist William Buckland – the man who first described and named the Megalosaurus – conducted experiments in the 1820’s, wherein he placed toads into carved chambers in limestone and sandstone blocks and buried them in his garden.  A year later he dug them up and, not surprisingly, most of the toads were dead and decaying.  But not all of them; an undisclosed number of the toads encased in limestone survived for a full 12 months, cemented inside stone and buried underground.  Buckland then reburied the surviving toads and found, another 12 months later, that all had perished.[3]

That’s a fairly incredible result, and there are many theoretical explanations for why those toads survived under those conditions.  Such as micro-pores in the limestone allowing small amounts of oxygen and water into the void, and various forms of suspended animation (which some frog species are known to employ during hibernation).

This of course says nothing about how the toads and other animals in the 200 plus accounts of toad-in-a-hole got into the rocks, trees or wherever they were found.  This defies logic like a teenager defying his parents.  Are we talking some kind of teleportation?  Macro-osmosis?  Magic?

It’s conceivable that fertilised toad eggs could have gotten trapped in sediment and eventually ended up embedded inside certain kinds of stone, such as limestone.  But limestone forms over millennia or at the very least many centuries; wouldn’t that mean that the toad, or its egg, was live or viable inside the stone for hundreds or thousands of years?  And what about other kinds of animals?

You can see why the scientific establishment just shakes its proverbial head and walks away amid a cloud of frustrated exhaustion in the face of our tomfoolery.  These reports exist though, and are of the sort that aren’t easy to dismiss, so we’re in a bit of a quandary.

There hasn’t been a recorded occurrence of an entombed animal since about 1980, so DNA analysis and other modern scientific methods have never been applied to this phenomenon, outside of an examination of the anecdotal accounts.  Thus, many questions about specific species, age, and special genetic conditions are left unanswered.

And speaking of anecdotal accounts, I leave you with the following incredible but unconfirmed (and highly suspect) report coming to us from the Illustrated London News of 1856:

“Workmen were digging a railway tunnel through a layer of Jurassic limestone when they were startled to find a large creature stumbling out of a recently split boulder, flapping what looked like wings, and croaking. It died immediately. The creature was identified as a pterodactyl by a local paleontology student who recognized the characteristic features of the extinct reptile. The stone in which it was found was consistent with the time period in which pterodactyls lived and formed an exact mold of the creature’s body.”[4][5]



[1] Age of the Human Race: Scientific American 11, 228-228 (8 October 1864) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican10081864-228a

[2] Benjamin Franklin. “An Account of Toads Found Enclosed in Solid Stone.” In The Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Jared Sparks. Volume VI. 1882. 441–442.

[3] Curiosities of Natural History. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine – March 1858 pg.360

[4] Johnathan Whitcomb. Tunnel Pterodactyl of 1856. Live Pterosaurs:

[5] Living Fossils – Weird Encyclopedia:

Did a Woman Stay Awake for 30 Years? Insomnia Explored

Have you ever had insomnia?  Sure, most people have at some point in their lives.  It’s one of those things that gets generalised and used to mean “I didn’t sleep so well last night.”  And while that’s technically an example of insomnia, those of us who truly suffer from extended bouts of sleeplessness have little patience for that diminishing attitude.

I suffer from chronic insomnia.  I have to take a sedative to get any sleep at all, and that usually works fairly well, though there are times when I curse my defective brain.  Actually, I do that often, but usually for different reasons.

My current record for being awake – and I mean totally, completely, unmistakably awake – is just over 90 hours.  It wasn’t a fun experience, I assure you.  Luckily, my daily schedule isn’t so demanding that I couldn’t cope with the blurred vision, constant headache, and lack of focus, not to mention a deeply unpleasant disposition.  I really can’t imagine what might have happened had I not finally found relief in medication.  Unfortunately, for me and you, imagination isn’t really necessary to find out.

Sometimes (incorrectly) called total insomnia, there is an extremely rare disease that causes those who suffer through it, to stop sleeping…forever.  That’s a little misleading though, since for those poor people, forever is only about 18 months.  That’s because Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) is terminal and there’s no known cure or remedy.

Before we get to an explanation of what this is, just take a moment to think about that.  No sleep, ever again.  Conscious, aware, awake; twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  Monotonous is a word that comes to mind, though it’s wholly inadequate to describe such an experience.  Tortuous might work better.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite Creepypasta short stories; The Russian Sleep Experiment.  If you’ve never read it, you really should.  It will give you chills.  The original author of the story is unknown, but that’s OK, this tale has a life of its own.  For fear of offering unsolicited spoilers, I’ll just say that the subjects of the Russian Sleep Experiment fared no better than those who suffer from FFI, and arguably, fared far worse.

Mad cow is mad

FFI is a neurological condition caused by a misfolded protein in the DNA of the afflicted, of which there have been only about 100 cases.  That protein, called a prion protein, is known as PrPSc (PrPC in non-FFI subjects).  Essentially, the prion form of the protein causes a change in certain amino acids – due to the protein strand folding incorrectly – which, when combined with other genetic markers, then affects the brain’s sleep centers.  FFI is genetic, and therefore hereditary, but there is an even rarer form known as Sporadic Fatal Insomnia (sFI) that occurs spontaneously, the cause of which is not understood.  You may wish to know that PrPSc is the same protein that’s responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as Mad Cow Disease.

You may be thinking that this is all well and good; interesting yet disturbing, but not exactly in keeping with my usual topics.  Well, here goes…

There have been, over the years, many stories – urban legends if you will – describing the incredible experiences of people who remain awake for years, decades sometimes.

The famous UK magazine Fortean Times covered the story of Ines Fernandez in 1975; a Spanish woman of 57 years (at the time), who claimed to have been awake for 30 years.[1]  They told the story of the day following the last time she ever slept, suggesting that she suffered some kind of physical neuronal trauma (apparently caused or triggered by a yawn) and then simply never fell asleep again.

There’s also the Vietnamese man, Ngoc Thai, 71, who claims he hasn’t slept for more than 41 years.  His insomnia began after he suffered a mysterious fever in 1973, and according to all sources, he suffered no ill-effect, outside of the fact that he never sleeps.

Thai and Fernandez are special cases.  As mentioned, Thai suffered no diminished capacity from his insomnia, in fact he continued to work on his own farm throughout his life. Fernandez is said to have suffered no other symptoms either, beyond a self-described depression following the death of her husband, which she blamed on the loneliness of the long nights.

This shouldn’t be possible.  Sleep deprivation causes – almost universally – fatigue, clumsiness, weight loss/gain, diabetes, decreased cognitive function, headaches, hallucinations, depression, hand tremors, seizures, mania, and ultimately death, all over a period of months.  These symptoms and effects are well documented and studied, so how is it that Ines Fernandez and Ngoc Thai – and presumably others – could remain awake for decades, yet suffer no ill-effect.

There are some explanations.  In both cases, the associated literature and verbiage across the internet, is that they were thoroughly examined by doctors, all of whom came up empty in their diagnosis.  You’ll note that both are from areas of the world not exactly known for the competence of their medical institutions.  Even so, one would think any doctor could tell if a person is awake or not.

The popular answer in this is that all of these cases are the result of some supra-natural ability or skill that’s being accessed by the patient, and some people in new age circles have held them out to be spiritually significant – Ngoc Thai in particular is something of a celebrity in Vietnam.

There is a more likely explanation though, as I’m sure you guessed.  It’s a smidge more mundane than having the superpower of total insomnia, but it fits relatively well.  It’s called sleep state misperception (SSM), which as may be apparent, describes people who mistakenly perceive periods of sleep as wakefulness.  Basically, they really do sleep, but they just don’t realise they did.

That almost seems like an April fool’s joke from the medical community, but it really is the cause of many of these claims.  It’s classified as a sleep disorder through the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD), though it’s more of a psychological condition than a physical ailment.  The key to SSM is that those who suffer with it will earnestly claim that they haven’t slept, or have slept very little, but during sleep studies, they show normal sleep patterns.

The upshot is that SSM doesn’t come with the terrible side-effects of FFI, such as death, which is handy.  Those with SSM often report depression, though the causal relationship between the two disorders isn’t as solid as most think.

So, to spell it out, the woman who hadn’t slept in 30 years, probably slept a lot more than she thinks.


[1] The Woman Who Hasn’t Slept in 30 Years.