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The pendulum of the mind

Sep 15, 2013 By Randy Tucker

As the wise man said, it swings not between right and wrong, but between sense and nonsense.

The lectures were a bit dry and the reading even more desiccated, but the labs made up for it.

You don't often think of psychology in an academic lab setting as you would chemistry or biology, but one I took at the University of Wyoming during a spring semester long ago proved to be the best.

We delved into a variety of subjects with one of the more intriguing labs devoted to Kirlian photography. Soviet researcher Semyon Kirlian discovered that living tissue, whether animal or plant, produced a unique photographic image when electricity was applied to it. The discovery came in 1939, but it gained popularity three decades later.

The Kirlian photograph quickly became a mainstay of the metaphysical world, with all sorts of hidden meanings interpreted by fringe scientists. (it was the 1970s after all). The device we used included a meter that read the electrical resistance in your fingertips as you touched it.

The concept of galvanic skin response measures those variations in electrical resistance and is the basic principle, along with blood pressure, pulse rate and respiration rate in the lie detector known as the polygraph.

As you might guess, we immediately began embarrassing each other with inappropriate questions while we were attached to the machine.

It was fringe science, that area where the mundane of the easily verifiable world melds with the realm of spirituality and produces an outcome that is viewed as either mystic or simply ridiculous, depending on your viewpoint.

Psychology has always fascinated me. How two people can experience the exact same event, at exactly the same time, and in exactly the same venue and yet have viewpoints completed juxtaposed is difficult to comprehend.

Our view of the world is so ingrained with our cultural heritage that "thinking outside the box" becomes nearly impossible for most people. We are, indeed, creatures of habit.

Chronopsychology is a relatively new science, dating back just 50 years or so. It measures the effect that time, light and regular intervals of each have on people and animals. It has very practical applications in the agricultural world but remains largely a mystery when people are involved.

Egg producers learned long ago that a hen gradually can be acclimated to thinking an 18-hour day is actually a 24 hour day if lighting in the layer barn is gradually changed to reflect sunrise every 18 hours. What his means is that an acclimated hen will lay eggs on an 18-hour rather than a 24-hour cycle. Do the math, and you get four eggs every three days instead of just one each day.

People experience the effects of this phenomenon when they cross continents and multiple time zones. We might joke about "jet lag," but it is a real thing for those who travel among Europe, Asia and the Americas on a regular basis.

In one of the first experiments involving chronopsychology, Michel Siffre, a French spelunker and geologist, decided to conduct experiments over the course of two months, 375 feet underground on a glacier moving through a vast cavern.

Siffre was connected to the surface by a telephone line but lived in the total darkness of this subterranean region for 60 days. Deprived of daylight, his only illumination came from artificial electric lights.

In the course of the research his concept of time began to change dramatically. Near the end of the experiment he would call the surface and think only an hour had elapsed since his last call when in reality the interval was 10 hours. Above ground, researchers never gave him any indication of what the time actually was so as not to ruin the experiment.

Daylight and normal nocturnal rhythms are important factors in our ability to reason, remain healthy, and even in our most basic needs in survival.

People's views of the world around them often are guided by time as well. Many put a lot of stock in their horoscopes. This pseudoscience began millennia ago, but it remains surprisingly vital to a lot of people, even in our modern age (see page B-3).

The idea of the date of your birth having a profound effect on your life is difficult for me to believe, but it has millions, perhaps billions of adherents.

Psychological researchers asked a group of English volunteers to rate how lucky they were. The results were surprising. People born in May considered themselves the luckiest, while those born in October felt they had little luck at all. Speculation began immediately. The likely culprit could have been that children born in summer months experienced warmer, easier lives at the onset than those born as winter was about to creep in. Another explanation was that their mothers ate vastly different diets in the winter versus summer months.

Whatever the explanation, people will always draw their own conclusions, whether fanciful or factual. Perhaps the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung put it best, "The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong."


Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator. He farms in rural Riverton.

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