Ellen Langer's friend's claim that a photographic image couldn't capture her guru is bullshit.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, July 20, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Ellen, we don't need more irrationality (you must be a sought-after guest at seances!)

Ellen Langer, one of America's leading social psychologists, has published a post for PT that argues we need to open our minds to farther out theories than the ordinary scientific ones.

Dr. Langer represents some of the best of psychology - applying empirical methods and scientific thinking to crucial human questions, like creativity, health, self-determination. Unlike much that takes the name of the science of human behavior, Ellen has placed our cognitions first, as the cause of the outcomes that matter to us. For me, her combination of creativity, science, and humanity is what psychology is about.

So I read with interest her account about a friend who told her that she took a picture of herself and her friends with their guru, and when they returned home there was no image of the guru in the picture. What Dr. Langer derived from this story was that we are too wedded to our earthbound theories and we should entertain whole new conceptions of the universe when confronted with evidence like this.

The physical theory which I believe is implicated in photographs is that human beings are solid objects that reflect light. As fellow blogger Chris Ryan pointed out, Ellen doesn't actually enunciate a new theory. Here, let me try for her - the guru has so trained his mind that he is able to allow to pass through his body the light rays that ordinarily rebound to create an image.

This "disappearing from pictures" phenomenon has a long history - do you remember Dracula couldn't be captured in photographs? So either the guru (a real person) and Count Dracula (a fictional character) share the ability of incorporeality , or the guru has perfected a whole new skill. I guess my first question is, "Why does the guru waste such an incomprehensibly great talent on parlor tricks like disappearing from photos?"

From a psychological standpoint, the theories I entertain based on a story like the one Ellen's friend told her (and Ellen did demonstrate good listening skills) are that (a) the firiend forgot the composition of the picture they actually took and she convinced herself the guru was in the picture frame, (b) she's fudging her experience to make the point that her guru is magical. The reason these come to mind is that I have observed them many times. On the other hand, I have never seen anyone disappear from a photo I have seen being taken of them - and I've witnessed thousands.

I know, I lack imagination and adventurousness of thinking! But how much would you bet - how much would Ellen bet? - that if you sent a trained photographer to take a picture of this guru it would look pretty much like the guru? I guess I'd put a thousand dollars down on that. Of course, for true believers, the answer is, "The guru wasn't really in a transparent mood for the photographer, because he wasn't a true believer," or something like that.*

But rather than argue the facts of the specific incident that forms the subject of Ellen's post, let me say what I think this call for irrationality does - it reinforces an already very evident strain in American thinking, whose results I deplore. We don't decide American policy, or health practices, or just about anything based on scientific evidence. When research shows that a medical test or procedure isn't helpful, and that we are wasting money, we don't abandon the test (like the recent discovery that cancer screening is ineffectual ). If we find that something like our drug policy is counterproductive, we don't search for a new one. Examples multiply.

America, as I pointed out in an earlier post, is awash in fanciful theories like talking to the dead, that personal angels circle our lives, that we can talk to animals, that various gem stones and talisman bring good luck, and oh so much more. We have hardly progressed beyond primitive cultures in the degree to which our lives are ordained and directed by superstition and irrationality.

Did you know that a majority of Americans reject evolution ? And irrationality is not pretty - it leads to prejudice against others who aren't like us (like Jews being burned for causing the Black Plague), self and child abuse (do you know that women have killed their children out of belief the children were possessed of the devil), rejection of modern medical practice (a grass roots movement refuted by every scientific and medical body has decided vaccinations cause autism and has had so much success that childhood illnesses once thought conquered have reappeared) - I could go on - oh, remember Jonestown?

So I guess I'm going to stick to theories based on reproducible evidence, and hope that psychology remains a beacon for a commitment to empricism and reason - which already leads to much that human beings find too challenging to contemplate: witness Robert Epstein's assertion based on historical and psychological evidence that adolescence is a dangerous and unnecessary invention - that's plenty large enough of a leap beyond our ordinary thinking for PT readers to chew on!

*Imagining such an expedition presents some real mind-twisters.  (And I'm sure Ellen wants to undertake such an experiment - it would cap her brilliant career by showing that mindfulness overcomes the laws of physics!).  If the guru is invisible to the camera, shouldn't he be invisible to the human eye, which the camera almost exactly mimics?  Will he also be invisible if Ellen tries to document the phenomenon on a video camera?  And how does the guru make his clothes disappear in photos (remember what a dilemma that was for Claude Raines and Chevy Chase in "The Invisible Man" movies)?  Of course, she should be able to get great shots of the guru levitating - since then he's only defying the laws of gravity, and not optics.  Or am I being sacreligious in maintaining that the guru is a mere human being?!  So much to ponder!

P.S.:  Ellen, is there already an ESP division of APA?  If not, perhaps you could start one!  Also divining, prophecy, alchemy, astrology, potions - the possibilities are endless!  You know, I believe there are sufficient areas to cover to justify a graduate program at Harvard!  You could co-teach with John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist who treats people kidnapped by aliens !  It will be like Hogwarth University, except that's fictional - at least I always thought it was!