If you were sitting in a waiting room and smoke began to billow out of a vent in the wall, you'd probably do something about it. At least, you'd report the problem to someone. Or maybe not.
In a famous experiment conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané during the 1960s, Columbia University students were invited to share their views about problems of urban life. Those who expressed an interest in participating were asked to first report to a waiting room in one of the university buildings where they would find some forms to fill out before being interviewed. They had no idea that the urban-life study was just a cover story. The real experiment occurred in the waiting room.
As they filled out the forms, smoke began to enter the room through a small vent in the wall. By the end of four minutes, there was enough smoke to obscure vision and interfere with breathing. Darley and Latané examined how the students reacted to this smoke in two different conditions.
In the first condition, the students were alone. When this was the case, they invariably investigated the smoke more closely and then went out into the hallway to tell someone about it.
But in the second condition, the students were not alone. There were two or three other people in the room, who were secret confederates of the researchers. They had been instructed to not react to the smoke. They would look up at it, stare briefly, shrug their shoulders, and continue working on the forms. If asked about it, they would simply say, "I dunno."
In this setting, according to Darley and Latané, "only one of the ten subjects... reported the smoke. the other nine subjects stayed in the waiting room for the full six minutes while it continued to fill up with smoke, doggedly working on their questionnaires and waving the fumes away from their faces. They coughed, rubbed their eyes, and opened the window -- but they did not report the smoke."
Norbert Elias (1897-1990) was a highly influential sociologist, best known for his two-volume work The Civilizing Process. Among his less well-known accomplishments was his shoelace experiment.
In 1965 and 1966 Elias traveled throughout Europe as a tourist. Deciding to mix sociological research with pleasure, he resolved to find out how people in different countries would respond to him if he left his shoelaces untied. Ingo Moerth summarized the results of this experiment in the June 2007 issue of The Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation:
(1) Spain - Torremolinos 1965 (upper village): In the mostly touristic context of ‘upper’ Torremolinos the loose shoe-laces were sometimes noticed, but never communicated, which Elias explained by a predominantly anonymous Gesellschaft context, brought about by a predominance of tourism.
(2) England - London 1965 (Regent Street, Bond Street): Here Elias conducted three experiments, all of which lasted three hours. He got nine reactions, mostly by older ‘citizens’, as Norbert Elias notes: ‘In England mostly elderly gentlemen reacted by communicating with me on the danger of stumbling and falling’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth). This might be interpreted as an established ‘society-context’, where the anonymity is overruled by engaged and experienced citizens watching the public space.
(3) France - Paris 1966 (Champs Elyseés, Boulevard St Michel, Montparnasse): Here Elias conducted three experiments of three hours, but with much less reaction. Only two people communicated directly with him about the visible shoe-lace problem, both sitting in street cafés on the Champs Elyseés, besides a youngster who shouted directly ‘prenez garde’ (‘take care’) into his ear, much to the amusement of the young man’s group of companions. As an explanation of this different reaction, perhaps a different character of ‘public space’ in France may be relevant: mere observation in contrast with engagement and direct intervention, as in London/UK or in Germany (see the following discussion, as cited below).
(4) Germany - for instance Münster 1965: Here the ‘society-context’ mentioned above was – according to Norbert Elias – watched and communicated not by gentlemen, but mostly by women: ‘In Germany older men only looked at me somewhat contemptuously, whereas women reacted directly and tried to ‘clean up’ the obvious disorder, in the tramway as well as elsewhere. Here in most cases a short conversation, comprising more than the obvious ‘shoe-lace disorder’ took place, such as a short warning about what might happen if I didn’t take care of the basic problem’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).
(5) Switzerland: Bern 1966: Here Elias experienced the most elaborate conversation about dangers related to untied shoe-laces, including admonitions about dangers of eating grapes and using trains. He explicitly states: ‘This was probably an exception, from which no conclusion on a Swiss national character can be drawn' (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).
It would be interesting to conduct this experiment in America. New Yorkers would probably ignore you. In Los Angeles everyone drives, so you'd be lucky if you encountered another pedestrian.
The Edmonton Sun offers this description of a bizarre murder that occurred in 1887 near Canada's Slave Lake:
Marie Courtereille, 40, died after being struck four times with an axe -- twice by her husband Michel Courtereille and twice by her son Cecil. Testimony at their trial indicated that Marie had begged to be killed because she believed she was possessed by a Windigo, telling them, "I am bound to eat you." Over a period of several weeks, she became increasingly aggressive, "roaring like an animal" and attacking her husband.
Eventually, she was tied down and guarded around the clock until it was decided that there was no choice but to kill her. The community supported the killing.
A Windigo (also spelled Wendigo) is a creature from Algonquin mythology. The Algonquins believed that Windigos were malevolent spirits who could possess people, transforming them into "wild-eyed, violent, flesh-eating maniacs with superhuman strength." Horror fans will be familiar with Windigos, since they've featured in a number of horror books and movies.
The term "Windigo psychosis" describes a psychological condition in which people who believed they were possessed by a Windigo would go on cannibalistic rampages.
Many researchers regard Windigo psychosis as something of an Algonquin urban legend, but ethno-historian Nathan Carlson argues that it was a real phenomenon "which haunted communities right across northern Alberta in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and cost dozens of lives." Carlson is working on a book that will documents dozens of cases of Windigo psychosis. Sounds like fun reading.
Hitachi recently announced that in 2010 they plan to unveil a 5TB hard drive. This led them to note that, "By 2010, just two disks will suffice to provide the same storage capacity as the human brain."
So, according to Hitachi, the brain has a 10TB storage capacity. But how did they arrive at this number?
There's been a lot of speculation about the brain's storage capacity. The most popular method of arriving at an answer is to estimate the number of synapses in the brain and extrapolate from there. This has led researchers to come up with numbers ranging anywhere from 3TB to 1000TB. Hitachi evidently was using this method.
But there's a second method (noted on the Of Two Minds blog). Psychologists have conducted experiments to measure how much information people are actually able to memorize. This produces much smaller numbers. They've concluded that it's only about two bits per second, or a few hundred megabytes averaged over an entire lifetime.
Of course, until scientists figure out a way to allow us to download our brains to computers, all these numbers are just useless trivia. And when that happens, we can all plug into the Matrix and live happily ever after.
Do you ever wake up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something else in the room?
Have you ever experienced a period of lost time -- an hour or more -- for which you could not remember what you were doing or where you had been?
Have you ever felt that you had been flying through the air although you didn't know why or how?
Have you ever seen unusual lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what was causing them?
Have you ever found puzzling scars on your body and neither you nor anyone else could remember how you received them or where you got them?
Three out of five indicates a 60% probability of alien abduction. Four out of five is a 90% probability. Scored five out of five? You're an alien abductee! My score was 0 out of 5. The aliens don't like me. :down:
The test comes from a 1993 survey conducted by sociologist Ted Goertzel, who found that 3.7% of his respondents qualified as "abductees." Goertzel was careful to note that he wasn't saying these people really were abductees. Instead he noted that the survey seemed to be "measuring a consistent phenomenon of some kind, but it tells us nothing about what it is that the scale is measuring."
But this distinction was totally glossed over by the National Enquirer who picked up on the survey and popularized it as an Alien Abduction Test. Extrapolating from the 3.7% response number, they concluded that 8 million Americans were alien abductees.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.