superstition

Here be Dragons

Despite being an opera singer, I’m not particularly superstitious. Unless, of course, you include the Chinese Zodiac in your definition of the superstitious. You see, I happen to belong to the most auspicious category, represented by the only legendary creature in the list: the almighty Dragon. Surely you don’t blame me, then, for holding onto the belief that my personality is best characterized by a giant, fire-breathing, winged beast*? I mean, really, can anyone argue that the following description doesn’t fit me to a tittle**?

HereBeDragons


Occupying the 5th position in the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon is the mightiest of the signs. Dragons symbolize such character traits as dominance and ambition. Dragons prefer to live by their own rules and if left on their own, are usually successful. They’re driven, unafraid of challenges, and willing to take risks. They’re passionate in all they do and they do things in grand fashion. Unfortunately, this passion and enthusiasm can leave Dragons feeling exhausted and interestingly, unfulfilled. While Dragons frequently help others, rarely will they ask for help. Others are attracted to Dragons, especially their colorful personalities, but deep down, Dragons prefer to be alone. Perhaps that is because they’re most successful when working alone. Their preference to be alone can come across as arrogance or conceitedness, but these qualities aren’t applicable. Dragons have tempers that can flare fast! excerpted from http://www.chinesezodiac.com/dragon.php


Just reading that description gives my self-esteem a (clearly superfluous) boost. Being a scientist, however, I can’t quite commit to the belief whole-heartedly. And given that we’re about to enter another year of the Dragon on Monday, it’s only fair to look at the evidence. Is there any compelling proof that the Chinese zodiac predictions are worth considering?

First, the caveat. Being a skeptical person by nature, and a psychologist by training, my working hypothesis is that the signs appeal to the vast majority of people, because the traits associated with a given sign include virtues of personality that we all share, or revere, alongside their equally-universal vices. Take the dragon, for example: in general, most people aspire to success and are passionate about, well, something. Most people prefer to live by their own rules and take solace in the notion that because they have to follow someone else’s rules to some extent (either at work, home or play), they are not as successful as they could be. And sure, if you’re ambitious, driven, self-motivated and prefer to be alone, you are likely to be perceived as arrogant and you certainly will feel exhausted at times. Going through the list of personality traits on the Chinese Zodiac page of Wikipedia, I find myself represented to some extent by each one of the signs. That is, of course, if I indulge in my natural tendency towards searching for confirming rather than disconfirming evidence, which psychologists call the confirmation bias. If I assess the extent to which these description fit my character, rather than the extent to which they miss key components of my personality, I can become quite convinced.

But enough speculation. What do the data show? Oddly enough, there aren’t that many studies of the effects of the Chinese Zodiac on pubmed. But those brave scientists who have published such studies have made some pretty fascinating discoveries. Giving the importance and unpredictability of childbirth, it comes as no surprise that the Chinese Zodiac is often used to gage whether a woman will become pregnant in a given year, and what will be the sex of the child. To test whether the zodiac does indeed correlate with its own predictions, Jungmin Lee and Myungho Park investigated the sex preferences and fertility in South Korea in the Year of the Horse and published their results in 2006. The horse is associated with masculinity and, in South Korea at least, the year is considered inauspicious for girls, as they are thought to suffer unhappiness and misfortune. Certainly, these predictions have as much to do with the society in which these girls are born as they have to do with the moon: as the authors point out, ‘in patriachal and Confusionist societies, women are expected to be subservient to men’. (Pardon me while I expel some smoke via my nostrils). Is there any evidence that the year of the Horse correlates with a higher birth rate of boys? Is it such a strong force that women might avoid getting pregnant and show a decrease in fertility? The authors seem to think so.
Horse_fertility
I must admit that those years don’t strike me as significant outliers. But what about the year of the dragon? In many Asian cultures, the dragon is considered (ahem) the best sign (though not so much for the ladies). In Hong Kong, birth rates peaked in the 1980s and then started to decline, even though the numbers of married women of child-bearing age continued to increase. Every 12 years, however, a blip in births was observed, coinciding with the year of the Dragon. In 2002, Yip, Lee and Cheung published a study of birthrates in Hong Kong in the journal Social Science and Medicine. These data seem more convincing to me, especially because Taiwan and Singapore both saw large increased in birth rates in the two previous dragon years.

dragon_HK

But how can we assess whether these effects are mainly driven by human behavior or by the orbit of the moon? Luckily, another study was recently published, which assessed the accuracy of predictions by the Chinese Lunar Calendar on 2.8 million Swedish births between 1973 and 2006. Such a huge database is pretty compelling and I’ll let the authors speak for themselves: ‘We conclude that the CLC method is no better at predicting the sex of a baby than tossing a coin and advise against painting the nursery based on this method's result.’ There you have it. Once again, you’ll see it if you believe it. That is, belief in the zodiac will alter your behavior, such that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Off I go then, to follow my ambitions and take risks. Happy Chinese New Year and best of luck in 2012!


*Some of you might (accurately but pedantically) point out that only the European version has wings: his Asian counterpart is more snake-like. Well, it’s my superstition so I get to imagine it just the way I please, thankyouverymuch.

**not Snoop Dogg speak. Actual derivation of the term ‘to a T’.

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Numb3rs

My lucky number is 27. I don’t know exactly why, but I do distinctly remember deciding, or discovering, that it is an auspicious figure. 25 is not bad either. I’m a grapheme-color synaesthete, which is a fancy way of saying that I see letters and numbers in color. That’s not strictly true, however. I can see that the letters I’m typing now are black. But just like the number 2 is a symbolic representation of two things or has a specific value, it’s also red in my mind: the symbol represents two-ness as much as it represents redness in my mind. So you might think that I chose 27 as a favorite number because I like that combination of colors, or because that was the day on which I was born, or some other obvious reason. But I didn’t. I don’t know why I chose it: but it hasn’t let me down yet.

Lucky_Numbers_Abstract_Wall_Art.306190600_std
courtesy of Kristin’s Lucky Tarot

The topic of synaesthesia will likely come up again in this blog, since it affects the way that I see the world, but today I’ve been thinking about signs and symbols, and how readily we assign meaning to abstract things. I’m preparing to fly to New York to sing at a marathon concert commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and I’ve been remembering what I consider the strongest episode of the show that I co-hosted on the Oprah Winfrey Network called Miracle Detectives. While we were shooting the episode, I was struck by how many people who had lost loved ones on that tragic day found comfort in the notion that their loved ones were communicating with them from beyond the grave by sending messages. These messages took a variety of forms: some were caused by weather forces (such as a breeze), others took the shape of animals (butterflies and birds in particular), some in the appearance of previously-lost jewelry or coins and many included the seemingly inexplicable appearance of abstract symbols such as a loved one’s lucky number.

I remember one story in particular, that a mother who lost her 30-something son when the world trade center towers fell, shared with us. Mrs. C. told us that she’d always been a spiritual person, and by that she meant that she had had ‘out-of-body’ experiences in the past and visions or premonitions of things that seemed to happen just as she had imagined them.

Because of the devastation, it took months to find and confirm the remains of the victims of 9/11. Many, of course, were never found, even with available DNA testing. The absence of remains and the uncertainty that followed the attacks left many victims’ families hoping that their loved ones were only temporarily lost. Closure was impossible to find.

Mrs. C. begged for a sign from her son in the days, weeks and months that followed the tragedy. He was a volunteer firefighter, and from eyewitness reports, she learned that he had run into the burning building three times to save the lives of others. How did she come across these reports? Her son used to carry around a red bandana, to keep the sweat off of his eyes, and the eyewitnesses remembered seeing a young man with that red bandana. When Mrs. C. was attending the birth of her first grandchild, years after 9/11, the first nurse to walk into the birthing room was also wearing a red bandana. She interpreted this as a sign that her son was present at the birth.

Mrs. C.’s son also had a lucky number: 1
9*: it was his lacrosse and ice hockey number, as well as the address of his apartment and the number of his favorite Chanel perfume. When Mrs. C. asked for a sign from her son, she often interpreted the appearance of the number 19 as his response from the other side: she might see it on a receipt, or a road sign, or in any number of ways. Once she saw it, she was comforted by what she perceived as his continued presence in her life and it helped her cope with her immense grief.

This search for signs that Mrs. C. described led me to think about how our brains are
predisposed to find connections and create meaning out of the abstract or the unpredictable. This need is especially great when we are in a highly emotional state, or dealing with a loss as devastating, unexpected and seemingly random as the loss of an innocent loved one in a terrorist attack. Our memories are selective: we don’t remember everything that happened to us because it’s much more useful to have a repository of relevant information rather than an unmanageable database of minutiae. Often, an event that elicited a strong emotional reaction such as fear, anger or grief is an important one to remember, so that it might be avoided in the future. As a result, our amygdala, or the almond-shaped structure that sends messages to our frontal cortex, or the part of our brain that makes decisions and evaluates evidence, modulates what we remember depending on our emotional state.

The old adage that seeing is believing has been turned on its head by psychologists in recent years: yes, experiencing something yourself does make you more likely to believe in it, but your beliefs not only affect what you remember but also what you see and how you see it. Two weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine,
David Amodio, published a study, in which his lab demonstrated that when people are worried about appearing to be racially-prejudiced, they perceive more racial differences between faces of people of their own race and those of a different race. This perceptual difference occurs very quickly - we can see a trace of it in the brain before the person is conscious of it. The motivation of a person affects his/her perception. If Mrs. C. is motivated to see signs from her beloved son, her brain will be tuned differently than if she did not have that motivation. As a case in point, her husband, who describes himself as ‘not very spiritual’, did not see any signs from his son and felt hurt that he was seemingly ignored. Then one day, in his garage, he sat in his car and begged for a sign: lo and behold, he noticed that a can of paint in front of him had the number 19 on its label. ‘It had been there the whole time,’ he says ‘I just hadn’t noticed it’. He’s absolutely right: with the right motivation, he finally perceived the sign that helped him deal with the loss of his son.


*in case you think that I see numbers as mainly red, here is the full palette: 1
234567890.Note that zero is white, so it’s there, but you probably can’t see it. And these are web-safe colors so they are not entirely accurate. The title of this blog post should read: Numb3rs

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