Guest Blog: Paranormal

by Simon Watt

LISTEN: Paranormal Podcast

Ghosts do not exist.  There is no reliable evidence whatsoever of their existence. That so many will find this assertion controversial tells us just how prevalent is a belief in the supernatural in our society.  Statistics suggest that up to half of Britons believe in ghosts and research conducted by Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire shows that about a quarter even claim to have felt the presence of some form of spirit.

Seeing, hearing or feeling the presence of a ghost is not sufficient to prove its actual existence. Your mind is out to get you.  In many ways, it is your brain that goes bump in the night.

The most plausible evidence we have as to why we perceive the inexplicable is that we are predisposed to finding patterns even if they are not really there.  The brain is a wonderful editor and can flesh out the details of the world in spite of the scant information it receives from our senses.  It is this wonderful ability that fills in the blind spots of our eyes, that allows us to perceive colour and to stich the still images on our television screens into movement It even helps to turn variations of pitch into speech and unintelligible squiggles into written words.  Optical Illusions might lead us to believe that our mind is easily manipulated, but they actuality show us how wonderful our inbuilt error corrections systems are most of the time.  Most phantoms are probably mere momentary glitches in our perception.

In particular, our brain has a bias for finding faces and bodies.  We are social animals, so finding and interpreting faces is of pivotal importance to us.  It only takes two dark dots drawn onto a page for us to have the idea that it is a face, and often even to bestow the concept of a personality upon it.  Experiments have shown that it is the two aligned black dots of our pupils that first allow babies to register faces and that their gaze will often follow any image bearing this two dot pattern.

But what makes these misinterpretations of the world so scary?   After all, spectral visitations are usually found to be frightening.  When it comes to our feelings about what we perceive, fear is a good default.  If we don’t know what something is, from an evolutionary view point, it is better to regard it as a threat just in case there is a real danger.  If we are unable to see it after a second glance, then we have even more reason to be perturbed; it could be a threat that is hidden

Seeing that which isn’t there is the small price we pay when our brain struggles to make sense of our senses.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Maybe that thing behind you is real.

Simon Watt is a biologist, science communicator, writer and broadcaster.


Guest Blog: Miscarriage

by Kim Akass

LISTEN: Miscarriage Podcast

Over the course of this week’s discussion on an aspect of motherhood that is rarely discussed, the question of secrecy inevitably came into the mix.  Is it because we rarely announce pregnancy until the ‘magic’ 16 weeks that miscarriage is so often swept under the carpet?  And how on earth could you go through such a trauma without telling anyone that you were pregnant but, and more importantly, that you are no longer.  That it is an intensely personal and private subject is ensured when you are never allowed to either celebrate or grieve for your baby.

The last section of the programme particularly resonated with me.  How much grief is the ‘correct’ amount and when is a woman ‘allowed’ to mourn for her lost child?  Should this be measured in weeks or days, when society deems the foetus to have been viable? Could it be that a woman undergoing cycle after cycle of fertility treatment, who is told of a successful implant after only two weeks, feels the loss of an early miscarriage more than others who may not have even known they were pregnant? How can grief be measured by how many days or weeks pregnant you are, how many children you already have and how difficult it was to great pregnant in the first place?  And who is to judge this?

We all react differently to death.  Some mourn immediately, for others the grief comes later, some keep it to themselves, while others share their feelings.  It seems to be that all the time miscarriage remains shrouded in mystery, an otherwise overlooked aspect of motherhood, women will never be able to talk about it and move on in their lives.  This is a discussion that Group Therapy has thankfully started.

Kim Akass is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.  She is currently writing a book on the representation of motherhood in the media.


Guest Blog: Marriage

by Myriam Francois Cerrah

LISTEN: Marriage Podcast

Sawa’s story seems to be a fairly normal case of the jitters, a fear that, five years in, maybe we didn’t make the right choice after all and this seems to me quite a widespread sentiment I would have thought, especially in younger couples. On the  other hand her story makes me feel quite hopeful in that her partner loves her and thus presumably is prepared to work at the marriage and she describes him as a ‘friend’, which although insufficient basis for a marriage, is a core component of what makes for a good marriage partner.

I agree with Catherine concerning unrealistic expectations of relationships – I don’t necessarily agree that a marriage can’t fulfil all of our needs, but this requires a significant investment in the other person, an investment of time and energy which in our face paced lives is sometimes hard to come by.

“The passionate fireworks display” as Jen described it, only really last for a fairly short period and part of the problem is not understanding that marriage is a verb, it is a work in progress, it isn’t just wham bam shebang and you’re happily every after. The media doesn’t show us love five or ten years in, when love has been stretched and worn – love is typically presented as passion, which is one element, but certainly isn’t sufficient to sustain a marriage over 30-40 years or more. This means young people like Sawa are sometimes unrealistic in expectations of what their partner or the marriage itself can provide. The marriage itself doesn’t guarantee happiness, investing time and energy into someone else is a much surer bet.

In this I agree one with Dr Alice Jones that we need to be realistic.

Sawa has changed – but all people change – it would be worrying if we didn’t grow and evolve – the contractual aspect of marriage is to recognise that within certain boundaries (your mental and physical wellbeing!), you have to accept that this will happen and part of the work required in a marriage is learning to evolve alongside one another. Part of the issue is, I would agree with Catherine here, is in viewing marriage as static. As someone who has been married for almost eight years, I can say from personal experience a lot things will change in a relationship (where you live, your job, your family set up, etc) and this is true for all couples. Part of the challenge is learning to recognise the enduring qualities in your partner during those periods of turmoil or change. Yes they’ve changed, as have you, but surely they still have certain qualities which you respect and admire, which drew you to them initially?

Is individualism to blame? To some extent, the focus on satiating the ego at all costs is to blame, because we fail to recognise the enduring truth that a great degree of happiness actually comes from pleasing others and in a relationship, that would be each partner doing their utmost to please the other. To a large extent, happiness is a derivative of that, rather than assuming that, as Alice says, we can or should feel happy all of the time. More important that ‘finding happiness’, which actually I think is the cause of a lot of unhappiness, is I would suggest serving certain principles and ideals, working together as a couple to seek to achieve them and happiness will be derived from working together as a couple towards these.

Catherine’s argument that infidelity can somehow lead to a happier marriage seems nonsensical to me – one of the reasons marriages fail today is because we don’t have time for one another and in particular, we struggle to find time to have fun together – how finding that ‘fun’ with someone else can somehow improve the relationship you’re neglecting in the first place makes no sense at all. It is a fairly simple mathematical equation – little time and little energy to invest in anything beyond work and family means relationships suffer – how or why one would assume that taking that limited time and energy and investing it elsewhere, not to mention the emotional investment of a new relationship, is somehow going to save your marriage seems laughable to me. Where I will agree with Catherine is that sex has to remain a component of a marriage, both partners must remain committed to doing whatever is necessary to maintaining a healthy sex life, alongside the commitment to emotional support and a loving commitment. My experience of friends whose relationships have survived a period of infidelity is that it shatters a fundamental trust between the partners which is incredibly difficult, if impossible to recover. It also distracts attention from each partner focusing on the other, which in periods of difficulty, should surely be the main focus. It also significantly and negatively impacted the children and their perception of love, trust and marriage.  At a very personal level, it also doesn’t make much sense to me that your ‘best friend’, which surely is what your partner is, before everything else, could betray your trust so fundamentally.

Guest Blog: Religion

by Dr. Alice Jones

LISTEN: Religion Podcast

I found this week’s show compelling and thought-provoking; bringing up an issue with no clear answer; no obvious right way to respond. As a psychologist, I’m interested in resilience and psychological functioning after trauma, and so I’ve decided to think more here about the associations between religiosity and trauma. I’m interested in why ‘George’s’ parents have rejected their previous set of beliefs and embraced a new faith.

For some, trauma seems to lead to becoming more open to religion and spirituality. ‘George’s’ parents have been through something distressing and life-changing, and as some result of this have re-examined their ideas about the world and affiliated themselves to a religion. That’s not to say that their development of faith is a maladaptive response to the accident and difficult recovery. Many people use religious actions to cope when times are tough, when at other times they would not consider themselves to be active believers. While some trauma survivors find their faith a comfort, others find it a source of distress and anxiety, while others abandon their faith altogether. The relationship between faith and trauma is not clear-cut.

Philippa, John and Ian discuss the idea of seeking structure and rigidity as a response to the trauma, and this is also something that has been explored by psychologists. People recovering from traumatic events often need to develop a new sense of self, and as Philippa suggested, create a new narrative about their lives. One important way trauma disrupts our lives is by shattering our assumptions about the amount of power and control we exert over our selves and the world around us. People who find religion after a major life event often credit this with their recovery, and it’s certainly not the case that turning to an existing faith, or developing a new sense of faith is as unreasonable as ‘George’ thinks. Several studies on religiosity and coping after trauma have noted that aspects of faith and spirituality, like using religion as a distraction, or actively giving over control of a difficult situation are associated with recovery and growth. It’s also been suggested that the social support aspects of religious involvement are associated with better outcomes. This is hardly surprising, given that supportive social networks have been consistently demonstrated to be associated with better coping and better mental health.  

It sounds like one of the things that ‘George’ is struggling with most isn’t the development of faith in his parents, but their change in views. It seems like there’s a lot of judging going on here. ‘George’ observes his parents becoming more ‘judgemental’, while at the same time seeming to judge his parents for turning to faith. Rigid and close-minded thinking is certainly not the preserve of active believers. ‘George’s’ relationship with his parents has changed dramatically, and this is tough to deal with. The feeling of grief for the loss of the parent-child relationship that ‘George’ has grown up with is palpable. John raises the point that ‘George’ might want to think about his and his parents’ reliance on certainties; exchanging dogmatic atheism for born-again Christianity, and I think this is something worth exploring. I realize that ‘George’ might want his parents back, but I don’t think this is about to happen. Instead, I hope that ‘George’ and his parents can work out a way of understanding each others’ viewpoints, without either feeling judged or less valued.

Guest Blog: Racism

by Farah Jassat

LISTEN: Racism Podcast

Have you ever met a self-confessed racist? Not someone who may hold racist views but cloaks them under political arguments. Someone who just defines themself as being a racist.
Self-definition is fascinating. What is the line that people cross from making racist comments, but disclaiming them as just being jokes, to openly admitting racist views as legitimate perspectives? The line may be easy to cross in the comfort of our own minds but social stigma repels giving it a voice.
This week’s group therapy hears ‘Martin’ confess that he is a racist but he can’t change the way he feels just to make others feel comfortable. Hearing this I immediately wonder where he is coming from. He might be ideologically convinced of racial superiority, but as I listen he doesnt seem to be talking about race at all, but immigration from the developing world. Is he then politically convinced of first world privilege (whatever that may mean)? His contention is with people who come to Britain from the developing world and scrounge off the system without giving back to society. This could be developed into a racist view if he mentioned types of people but he doesnt. And his partner is from Morocco which just confuses me even more. He seems to admit there is that tension but indicate it hasn’t grown big enough to cause a rift in their relationship – yet. I’m glad the contributors notice this tension (or lack of) and explore if we value our value systems enough to live by it.
Maybe ‘Martin’ really is a racist and maybe he isn’t. In a way, that’s not the point. What I find interesting is why he is so keen to self-define this way. Is rebelling against societal norms by saying the unexpected empowering? Perhaps it makes people sit up and listen to the underlying socio-political concerns.
Whatever the motivation to call yourself a racist, I find such self-definitions a bit sensationalist. If people have a problem with immigration, then fine, discuss the arguments and the facts. Labels aren’t always helpful – especially if wrongly applied. We all have pre-conceived notions of what they mean and so if we want to have a meaningful discussion of social, political and perhaps psychological fears and prejudices, then we need to deconstruct the concerns and arguments beneath the labels.

Guest Blog: Violence


by Dale Shaw

LISTEN: Violence Podcast

I have never punched a man in the face. Never. Even though I grew up in the West Midlands in the 1970’s, where punching people in the face seemed to be a popular pastime, with kicking someone in the side as a close second, I have yet to punch a man in the face.

I did once slam my brother’s head in a door. He had stitches at the time and was convinced his brains were about to fall out. But despite this blip, my moments of violence have been as rare as UK Eurovision wins. I’ve certainly been provoked to violence. In a nightclub in Washington DC where my female companion was manhandled by a man and responded by applying her stiletto to his goolies. Not wanting to start a fight with a girl, he decided to start a fight with me. It didn’t go beyond the shouting phase.

But did I THINK about punching this man and many other men in the face? Over and over. Until their visage resembled the interior of a tin of Heinz ravioli? Of course! Can you imagine the horror of a world where you didn’t think about administering harm on your fellow man? Have you ever taken public transport? Unless your travelling on a conveyance that is completely devoid of passengers and features a driver on Prozac, then you’ll be fantasising about garrotting, shovelling or numchucking someone sitting close to you within around 12 seconds.

Yes, we all possess the primal urge to be violent. But the reason we are still here and our less lucky, hairier evolutionary cousins aren’t is because we developed the ability to take a deep breath, count to ten and just leave well alone. If all disputes, disagreements and misunderstanding back in the furry loincloth age were resolved by extreme violence, there wouldn’t be anybody left. Just one smug Homosapien-type holding a big club and wondering where all the other Homosapien-types had gone.

We developed the ability to talk through problems while only THINKING ABOUT beating someone senseless. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to pick a fight with everyone who pisses us off on a day-to-day basis?  You see, verbal communication is not just a lifesaver, it’s a time-saver.

Now, one reason for this could be my size. I’m at the Jack Russell end, if you’re making a dog/person comparison type. I tend to think that this helps me avoid a lot of trouble. The sort of person who is happy to instantly resort to violence, is also the sort of person who will feel they’ve ‘failed’ if their victim is much smaller, weaker and crying-er than them. Again this is possibly primal. Violence is used in primate groups to assert dominance. But asserting dominance over a ‘Jamie Cullum’ as opposed to an ‘Andre the Giant’ is a bit of a waste of time.

So that primal urge to fight, to poke, to gouge, to roundhouse exists within us all. But what we evolved to do is not constantly flail our arms in an excited manner every time we are short changed. Instead we use our innate powers of language to make our feelings known. While secretly imagining sticking someone’s head in a vice, once we’re at a safe distance. It’s human nature.

Guest Blog: Schadenfreude

By Daisy Buchanan

LISTEN: Schadenfreude Show

It’s impressive to be able to recognise schadenfreude and identify its harmfulness. We’re all guilty of it, every day. We love seeing pop cultural icons and public figures slip up. We revel in their humiliation. But it takes guts to admit that we enjoy seeing someone fail – and to acknowledge that we don’t like that aspect of ourselves.

But it’s one thing to celebrate the misery of the famous, and quite another to be pleased about the failures of a friend, like Shaheda. Why would anyone be happy because an acquaintance is sad? It’s possibly because we’ve all been enveloped in a culture of comparison since we started school – earlier, if you have siblings. We want to rank ourselves, and we need a context to judge our activities, successes and problems-  and we look to the people around us to provide that. The trouble with any ranking system is that when someone moves up within it, other people are left behind. Conversely,  when the people around you fail, you’re boosted – or at the very least, your position in the table is cemented.

The trouble with this approach is it can be fatalistic. If the universe were to assign us all gifts and opportunities based on our talents and good nature, it would be a reasonable way to think. But we’re not all starting from the same set of blocks.

As a writer, I constantly compare myself to other people in the industry. My first book was released shortly before Pippa Middleton’s. I was jealous of her enormous advance and the blaze of publicity surrounding her title. And quite disgustingly gleeful when I read about her disappointing sales. But when I thought about it a bit more, I realised that the feelings were destructive and pointless. She’s a public figure – I’m someone who writes silly things about TV for a living.  If she doesn’t do so well, that’s not going to give me a career boost. You might as well compare a penguin to an aardvark.

Trying something new takes courage. When you put yourself on the line, you’re taking a big chance. You might be applying for a promotion, asking someone on a date or just trying to persuade a friend to do you a favour – if you’re naturally risk averse, it’s much easier watching someone else give one of these things a try and getting it wrong. It saves you from humiliation and proves what you had hoped all along – that there’s no point trying. Shaheda admits that whilst she has a good job, it’s not “exactly” what she would like to be doing. If Shaheda were to apply for the job of her dreams, she might not get it – and if she did, she could discover that it wasn’t what she had hoped for. Taking risks makes us feel very vulnerable. It’s natural to feel some subconscious jealousy when someone close to you does something daring when you’ve been playing it safe. Shaheda’s friend’s failure has shored up her belief that it’s right to stay in her comfort zone.

A peer’s failure gives you permission to rest on your laurels for a bit. A moment to think “well, this could be worse” and stop pursuing your own dreams, because you don’t have to worry about being outranked. So once you’ve identified the sensation as a bad thing, you can use it to identify your own insecurities  – and figure out how to fix them. If someone else’s sadness brings you joy, think about how you’d feel in their position – and how you’d feel if you’d achieved what they had set out to do. Take action. If, like Shaheda, you realise that schadenfreude makes you feel ashamed, you’re ready to start finding joy in your own positive decisions rather than someone else’s negative ones.

Daisy Buchanan’s The Wickedly Unofficial Guide to Made in Chelsea is out now.