Psychologists have found that a person can easily become habituated to a repeated stimulus. But if the stimulus is removed, its absence can itself be perceived as a kind of phantom stimulus. This is known as the "Bowery-el phenomenon" — named after the Bowery el (or Third Avenue el), the elevated rail line that used to run through New York City. The cognitive scientist Karl Pribram explained the term in a Jan 1969 Scientific American article, "The Neurophysiology of Remembering":
For many years there was an elevated railway line (the "el") on Third Avenue in New York that made a fearful racket; when it was torn down, people who had been living in apartments along the line awakened periodically out of a sound sleep to call the police about some strange occurrence they could not properly define. Many such calls came at the times the trains had formerly rumbled past. The strange occurrences were of course the deafening silence that had replaced the expected noise.
And there's a slightly fuller description at indiana.edu:
Apparently the omission of an event can itself be an event. A somewhat famous case of this is the Bowery El phenomenon. The Bowery El is a train the regularly runs through the Bowery, a less than desirable section of New York City. In the Bowery the track is lined by some apartment buildings. That residents of these apartments regularly call police to report suspected criminal activity (breakins, assaults) is not so unusual. However, for a period of two weeks in late the 1960s the police received un unusually large number of calls in the middle of the night. Even more confusing was that the police often found no evidence of criminal activity (breakins, peeping toms, etc.) apparently nothing was happening. At least not more than usual. As mentioned, after about two weeks the number of calls reduced down to the usual number. Some astute investigator noticed that at about the time the calls increased in number the Bowery El had stopped its 2:00 AM run. Apparently the residents of the apartments had habituated to the noise in the middle of the night. However once the noise stopped the residents dishabituated and the resulting OR woke them up. Since no one wakes up to nothing, the residents apparently assumed that something unusual had happened and called the police.
The indiana.edu article says the flurry of calls occurred in the 1960s, but I think they must be mistaken, since the Bowery el was torn down in 1955.
The Bowery el, aka Third Avenue el. Image via wikipedia
The Stop Stress Group is a Spanish company founded by Jorge Arribas Haro in 2003. It offers stress management and team-building therapy to companies, and it specializes in "Destruct Therapy" (Destructoterapia), which involves giving office workers sledge hammers, taking them out to a junk yard, and having them vent their rage on "cars, washing machines, refrigerators, television sets, and so on."
In the video below there's one burly guy who seems like a ringer, and then a bunch of people who are more like tapping the car with the sledgehammer. They're probably thinking, "Why do we have to do this idiotic team building exercise?"
Back in 1931, Dr. Mandel Sherman, director of the Child Research Centre, wanted to find out the exact number of ways in which children annoy their parents. He came up with the oddly specific number of 2,124 different ways.
He arrived at this number by having a group of parents carry notebooks around with them for a week and record each time their child annoyed them.
Some of the ways in which the children annoyed: being disobedient, being too slow or too quick, not being neat, primping, etc.
Personally, I think he seriously lowballed that number.
We've encountered the work of Dr. Sherman before. Back in 2009, I posted about his advice that instead of training kids to be successful in life, we should train them to accept the inevitability of failure. That way, they'll be much happier when they actually do end up as mediocre flops.
In the mid 1930s, Dr. Harry DeSilva of the Massachusetts State College at Amherst created a brake reaction test to measure how quickly drivers can step on the brake in response to a red light. He took it around the country and tested thousands of people.
People in their mid 20s generally had the quickest reaction times, and then times declined with age, which wasn't a surprise. Slightly more surprising was that short people generally had faster responses than tall people. From Time magazine (Aug 1935):
The average reaction time was .43 sec. The fastest was .26 sec. The slowest was .90 sec. It was found that tall persons generally react a little more slowly than short people, no doubt because motor nerve impulses travel through the body at about 300 ft. per sec. and thus for tall persons the motor impulse would take longer to go from the brain to the foot. Another theory is that short people simply have less leg to deal with.
Back in the 1930s, if a Detroit judge suspected a driver was mentally unfit to be on the road, he might send the driver to see Dr. Lowell Selling, who would test the driver using a miniature street intersection to simulate various situations. However, I'm not sure what exactly this testing involved, beyond that vague description.
Despite the high incidence of both motor vehicle accidents and mental disorders in the general population, a literature examining correlates between the two is sparse. Almost 70 years ago, a Detroit psychiatrist, Lowell Selling, pioneered work in this area with a series of unfortunately forgotten journal articles. Beyond his seminal contributions, little has been published on this important area of crime.
Gravitz wasn't actually doing this himself, but he reported that back in the early 20th century (and presumably earlier as well) creating warts was a popular pasttime among girls in the Swiss canton of Vaud:
Charles Baudouin, a contemporary Swiss, noted that the canton or province of Vaud, in which Lausanne is located, was well known for its large number of lay wart healers. It was also possible for a patient to employ a prescription for the treatment of warts without consulting one of these folk healers. "In these cases, autosuggestion is seen in all its beauty. Prescriptions pass from village to village and hamlet to hamlet. Some of them are incredibly quaint. For example, to cause warts, the subject goes out one evening, moistens the tip of the finger, looks at a star, and simultaneously applies the wet finger-tip to the other hand. The operation is repeated, the finger being freshly moistened with saliva each time, while the subject counts, 'one, two, three . . .' up to the number of warts desired. Now, wherever the moistened finger-tip has been applied, a wart duly appears."
He noted that such practices were a form of amusement among the Vaudois girls who derived pleasure from passing their own warts on to someone else. "A ribbon is tied around the affected hand, and is knotted as many times as there are warts on the hand; then the ribbon is dropped on the highway. Whoever picks it up and unties the knots, will get the warts, and the original owner of the warts will be cured."
Some people who take ESP tests score so badly that ESP researchers have theorized that their low scores can't be attributable to chance alone. These low-scorers must be using "Negative ESP' to avoid getting correct answers.
In 1958, Dr. David Briggs claimed that hypnotizing his students increased their academic performance by up to 15 percent.
Reminded me of the Hypnotizing High School Principal I posted about back in October. The difference being that in the 1950s a professor hypnotizing his students was seen as a quirky but harmless experiment. But a principal who did essentially the same thing in the 21st Century got accused of contributing to the deaths of his students.
Newsweek - Apr 14, 1958
Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas) - Apr 3, 1958
Down in Florida, the Sarasota County School Board has agreed to pay a settlement of $600,000 to the families of three high school students who died. One of the students was in a car accident, and the other two committed suicide. But all three had previously been hypnotized by George Kenney, the High School Principal. Kenney had been hypnotizing many students (about 75 in total) in the belief that it would help them with athletic and academic performance.
The case against Kenney is that the hypnosis may have been a causal factor in the deaths because it somehow messed up the fragile brains of the teenagers. Dr. Alan Waldman, a specialist in neuropsychiatry, testified that, "The wires that connect the neurons are still getting the fatty covering that insulates them. It doesn't stop forming till the early 20s. And they're a child's brain. That's a factor."
Auroratone was a "process for translating music into color" invented circa 1940 by Englishman Cecil Stokes. The music vibrated an emulsion of crystallizing chemicals, and this was then photographed by a color movie camera, producing a kind of psychedelic movie of shifting colors synchronized with music (but this was the 1940s, before the concept of psychedelics was known in popular culture).
The hope was that these auroratone films could be used to treat psychiatric patients, and they were experimentally shown to soldiers in an army hospital suffering from psychotic depressions. Conclusion: "Observation revealed that these patients were intensely absorbed in the films, that their span of attention to the films was appreciably lengthened after exposure to the films. Weeping and sobbing was observed in some patients. Many patients became more accessible to individual and group psychotherapy immediately folllowing exposure to these films."
Their effect was also tested on juvenile delinquents. One kid told the experimenter, "I think God must have painted those pictures."
A company was formed to commercialize Auroratones and guide their development. Investors in this company included the Crosby Brothers (Larry and his famous brother Bing). Bing sang the music for many of the auroratones.
Treating psychiatric patients wasn't very profitable, so there was hope to find more lucrative applications of the auroratone process. One idea was to transfer auroratone color patterns onto textiles and ceramics. Some silk scarfs printed with visualizations of Bing Crosby singing "Home on the Range" were apparently manufactured, but never sold.
Not many auroratones still survive, but an example of one can be viewed on YouTube:
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Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction books such as Elephants on Acid.
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