Does Body Chemistry Make You Gullible?

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Over the years, as a confirmed skeptic, I've not been too charitable to purveyors of the paranormal. Israeli "psychic" Uri Geller has felt the sting of my columns, as has medium John Edward, who claims he is in touch with our dearly departed. I've ridiculed believers in Therapeutic Touch and Alien Abductions, and made light of those who insist that UFOs are visitors from other worlds.

Now I'm feeling a little guilty. It turns out that these poor souls, as well as the millions who hold similar beliefs, really can't help themselves. It's their body chemistry that makes them so gullible. At least that's the conclusion reached by a group of Swiss neurologists who had previously suggested that those who believe in the paranormal seem to be more willing than skeptics to see patterns or relationships between events.

To discover what might be triggering these irrational connections, the researchers report in the British journal New Scientist, they persuaded 20 admitted believers and 20 adamant skeptics to take part in an experiment. First the scientists briefly flashed faces and scrambled faces on a screen, then real words and pseudo words. It quickly became evident that the believers were much more likely to see a real word or face when there wasn't one.

The Swiss scientists then gave all of the volunteers a dose of L-dopa, which is widely used to relieve symptoms of Parkinson's Disease by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. The drug caused both groups to make more mistakes, but the skeptics became more likely to interpret the scrambled faces and words as the real thing.

To the researchers, these results suggest that paranormal thoughts are associated with high levels of dopamine in the brain and that L-dopa makes skeptics less skeptical. I guess, then, that the assumption can be made that my levels of dopamine are abysmally low.

But the Swiss experiment may have other implications. It has been observed that treatments with L-dopa often seem to lead elderly Parkinson's patients to make aggressive passes at their nurses, behavior attributed to the effect the drug has on the libido. In light of the Swiss experiments, however, that theory may now have to be revised. May I suggest instead that the L-dopa causes the patients to believe, gullibly and irrationally, that the nurses would encourage and welcome their advances? Gee, I like that theory. Perhaps it's time to prove it out with a large-scale clinical trial.

An Ironic Twist for Dr. Targ

In my January 16, 2002 column entitled "Investigating the Power of Prayer," I looked askance at the Federally-funded National Institutes of Health for granting nearly one and a half million dollars to Dr. Elizabeth Targ for two studies she was conducting. Now her story has a troubling new twist.

Targ was investigating "distance healing," a technique that involved healers from various faiths praying for patients with serious illnesses, healers who were far removed from the patients and never encountered them. Furthermore, the patients were unaware that prayers were being offered on their behalf.

One group being studied by Targ consisted of AIDS victims, the other of those afflicted with a kind of brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme. As her studies progressed, Targ said that the prayed-for patients were doing considerably better than those in a control group with the same illnesses, but who were not the recipients of prayers from afar. My column cast a skeptical eye on such claims.

Last week I belatedly learned that Targ herself, in a most ironic twist of fate, had surgery in April for a brain tumor. Yes, it was diagnosed as a glioblastoma multiforme. The operation left Targ with difficulty swallowing, her speech mildly impaired and her voice an octave or two higher. As part of her rehabilitation, she has been meeting with spiritual healers and alternative medicine specialists. And, according to a website set up by her friends, she is "open to hearing about alternative and complementary treatment and healing strategies."

One of those strategies is being employed by Targ's friends on the web site, where they have requested that readers send "very focused healing intention for the alleviation of her condition and for her complete recovery" in the form of written prayers. The response testifies to the adulation of Targ's many admirers, who have sent hundreds of E-mailed prayers as well as some ordinary get-well wishes.

While I am still convinced that the results claimed by Targ are illusory, I gather from the comments of her friends that she is a loving, generous person, and I join those friends in wishing her well and hoping for a speedy recovery.

[Note: Just days after this column was published, we learned that Dr. Elizabeth Tarq died of glioblastoma]