58 How does it feel to see a bat?

Posted on February 7, 2012 by

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In Chinese culture, bats are regarded as auspicious creatures. The Chinese name of bat is bian fufu being a homophone for good fortune and happiness.

As symbols of happiness, bat images can easily be found on variety of objects, such as paintings, chinaware, architecture, embroidery, furniture, etc.[1]

Superstition? That’s what missionaries and other Western visitors thought. I’m changing my mind about this disparaging view. Not that I’m converted – I’m too down to earth for mysticism of any sort. It’s science that’s forcing me to reconsider.

It all started with a scathing assessment of the therapeutic value of psychoactive drugs[2]. Their value may at best be the same as placebo (which do not have long term effects we suspect in psychoactive drugs, fortunately). The value of placebos[3], self-help, and subjective attitudes[4] toward disease is being re-examined[5]. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we live indeed in a world of “mind over matter” – there may be a place for bats as well.

Several factors – I presume – are behind the surge in interest in the placebo effect. Evidence-based medicine is destroying a lot of illusions about the effectiveness of many a treatment. Budgetary concerns query the alleged incremental improvement of new and more expensive treatments. Increasing knowledge about the brain and consciousness further undermines old-fashioned views that we might understand the body-mind complex using mechanical metaphors. Cynically, I may add, competition among scientists for funds also leads to “cannibalism” – in the world of publish or perish it may be a better strategy cleverly to undermine some colleague’s claim rather than establish some of one’s own.

A new line is social psychology – a discipline which has hit the “evidence based” shores running, after being rescued from “common sense”[6]. Let’s be honest – it looks a bit like the “in thing” at the moment – which does not make it necessarily wrong.

Recent “evidence based” studies indicate that the human mind is extremely sensitive to social stigmas – what Claude M. STEELE calls “stereotype threats”[7]; they can markedly influence our performance. Change the setting or the stereotype ever so slightly, and people’s performance picks up – for longer periods. In a similar line WILSON[8] explains that we have “core narratives” which determine our attitude. By moving from a “self-defeating” to a “self-enhancing” cycle, we can bootstrap ourselves out of the rut. This is not “positive thinking” – suppression of negative thoughts – rather it involves subtly gaining distance from the event by reflection and finding a personal way to recover meaning, hope, and purpose. Such“changes in narratives” are very subtle processes – nothing of the hectoring, groveling, loud-mouthing of the convert – if too loud they may in fact be counterproductive.

Bats and other “good luck charms” may have been “positive cues” (perceived if not always properly interpreted), which made for both “placebo effects” and easier cooperation among members of the Asian (and other superstitious) cultures. It would be worth a scientific test to verify this conjecture – as flimsy as it is – before dismissing it as “superstition”.

Should we then paint bats all over our public transport, and on McDo boxes? Well, a precursor may be already there: it’s called SIRI, and it’s an application of iPhone[9]. The article, which describes the way it works, concludes: “When SIRI does what you want, the first time, when you haven’t read any instructions or followed any rules, you feel a surge of pride at your instantaneous mastery”. Sure, it’s a “feel-good feature”. It is worth exploring scientifically, however, whether such a gadget could ever so slightly help us change our view of the world around us, cope with stigmas, and other hidden negative persuaders. And I’m modest: I only want “good enough”.

Who knows? The great strength of social networks is how they diffuse information. The danger lurks in the process becoming “viral” – news spreading and emotions being stirred widely, to the point that social intercourse breaks down. But what if one could reverse this “stirring” up process, and use the net to reassure, calm, and give people some hope – rather than stir up anger[10]?


[1]           When you find bat images, pay attention to the number of bats, as different numbers also convey different meanings. Usually, two bats means double luck while five bats means Five Fortunes, namely good luck, prosperity, wealth, happiness, longevity.

[2]           Marcia ANGELL (2011): The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why? NYRB June 23.

[3]           Michael SPECTER (2011): The power of nothing. Could studying the placebo effect change the way we think about medicine? The New Yorker, December 12.

[4]          Enhancing Cognition in Older Adults Also Changes Personality. ScienceDaily (Jan. 18, 2012)

[5]           Surfing The Net Helps Seniors Cope With Pain. ScienceDaily (Feb. 10, 2009)http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090210092723.htm This is just one of several articles on the subject.

[6]           See e.g. Timothy D. WILSON (2011): Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. Little Brown. At p. 25 the author argues: “It is no exaggeration to say that commonsense interventions have prolonged stress, raised the crime rate, increased drug use, made people unhappy, and even hastened their deaths. The problem is that these interventions failed to take into account the premise that (…) in order to solve a problem, we have to view it through the eyes of the people…”

[7]           See: Claude M. STEELE (2010): Whistling Vivaldi and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. Norton, New York. We are surrounded by stereotypes, which are embedded in many behavioral rules, customs, and out material world. But these stereotypes are also “free-floating” like the one that “girls are not as good as boys in maths”.

[8][8]          Timothy D. WILSON (2011): Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. Little Brown, New York.

[9]           See POGUE (2012): Silicon superego. How much personality do we want from our gadgets? Scientific American, January.

[10]          No judgment intended. A system that may be used to smooth as well as to ruffle feathers has a better chance of being seen as pro-social. In other words: if you can’t lick them, join them.

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