Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

The Benefit Of Academic Nightmares


You're late for an exam and didn't study for it. If you weren't boned enough, you haven't been to class all semester. You're frantic, trying to find your classroom, running in slow motion as time runs out.

You finally wake up in a cold sweat.

Dreams like these are terrifying, moreso than nightmares of violence and mayhem, since they reflect tangible anxieties and self-doubts. Recently there's been some scientific inquiry into this dream trope, and The Guardian's Jenny Rohn sums it up.

In 2014, scientists based at the Sorbonne in Paris studied a large group of students taking a medical school entrance exam, harvesting their dreams the night before and relating them to their results afterwards. About two-thirds of the respondents dreamed about the exam, with nearly 80% of these dreams being negative in some way – usually involving the dreamer being late, or not remembering the right answers. Yet those who dreamed of the exam were more likely to perform better. Therefore, the authors hypothesised that such dreams provide some sort of “cognitive gain’.

Another way to interpret these findings is to look at the divide between the conscious and subconscious minds. The conscious mind specializes in narrow, sharply-focused, attention to detail. These qualities are key to conventional academic success. While someone's awake and learning in class, the subconscious is otherwise preoccupied. It's focusing on the big picture, preventing the conscious mind from being overwhelmed by distractions. The rest of that seemingly idle processing power is hard at work on unrelated back-burner projects which, when completed, manifest as late-night epiphanies or earworms.

Absorbed in other matters, the subconscious's unaware of any forthcoming tests or life events 'til it's too late. Even though the conscious mind is fully cognizant of its responsibilities, enjoying a well-deserved break after studying for the big day, the subconscious panics. It's not prepared and the ensuing anxiety wakes you up with a flood of self-doubt, lighting a fire under your ass for one more fevered cram session just in case.

This isn't the first time researchers discovered the benefits of anxiety. A 2012 study by Matthew Owens, et al., published the results on the impact of anxiety on memory and test performance in The British Journal of Psychology.

"The research is exciting because it enhances our knowledge of when, specifically, anxiety can have a negative impact on taking tests. The findings also suggest that there are times when a little bit of anxiety can actually motivate you to succeed."

On the other hand, one doesn't always need nightmares and anxiety to succeed. If the conscious and subconscious minds work together, rather than in parallel, there can be significant benefits. A study by Erin Wamsley of the Harvard Medical School, along with a few friends, demonstrated how dreaming of performing a task enhanced the participants's performance with the same tasks in waking life. While these dreams didn't necessarily solve the experiment's mazes and puzzles, the researchers found memories from prior attempts were consolidated and reorganized in dreams, enhancing performance the next time around.

Many other questions about dreams have yet to be answered by science. Take this riddle, courtesy of Neil Gaiman from DC's Sandman.

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A Modern Kōan Of Consciousness

If you haven't been following Rich Reynolds's great UFO Conjectures, you've been missing an interesting digression on consciousness and artificial intelligence. Amidst his brilliant posts are links to recent Dilbert strips regarding the topic, bordering on genius.

Consciousness hurts, meatbag. Or does it?

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That Time Obi-Wan Kenobi Used the Force to Warn James Dean About His Impending Death

Obi-Wan Kenobi

I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

Despite a long and celebrated career on stage and screen, this famous line from the original Star Wars will likely be the scene that most people remember in association with the name of Sir Alec Guinness.

As the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi, Guinness is suddenly overcome when the entire population of the distant planet Alderaan is instantaneously killed when the Empire's "Death Star" destroys the planet. He feels this through 'the Force', a mystical power that gives him and other Jedi paranormal-like physical and mental abilities.

Interestingly, Sir Alec once had a real-life 'paranormal experience' of his own. In a talk on science fiction's use of parapsychological themes, researcher Dean Radin pointed out that in a 1977 TV interview with Michael Parkinson (post Star Wars release, in which he also discussed the film and how his 2.25% cut of the takings came about), Sir Alec told of a "very very odd, spooky experience" he had upon meeting James Dean, shortly before the iconic star's death in a car accident.

And when told by Sir Alec himself (see video below) - in the voice we all now know as Obi-Wan Kenobi - it certainly sounds like a manifestation of 'the Force'.

In September 1955, fresh off a plane and spending his first night ever in Hollywood, Guinness was out looking for a meal when James Dean approached him, asking the celebrated thespian to join him for dinner at the Villa Capri, a small Italian restaurant frequented by stars. But on the way into the restaurant, Dean first took them into the car-park, saying...

"Before we go in, I must you show something. I've just got a new car." And there in the courtyard of this little restaurant was a - I don't know what the car was, some little silver, very smart thing...all done up in cellophane with a bunch of roses tied to its bonnet. And I said, "How fast can you drive it". And he said "Oh I can do 150 in it". And I said "Have you driven it?" He said "No, I've never been in it at all."

And some strange thing came over me, almost a different voice, and I said "Look I won't join your table unless you want me to, but I must say something: please, do not get into that car. Because if you do," and I looked at my watch, and I said "if you get into that car at all, it's now Thursday"...whatever the day it was..."10 o'clock at night, and by 10 o'clock at night next Thursday you'll be dead if you get into that car."

[mimics James Dean's response with a wave of the hand] "Nonsense".

So we had dinner, a charming dinner, and he was dead the following Thursday afternoon, in that car. It was rather a very very odd, spooky experience.

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Guinness does make the mistake in the interview of saying it was Thursday, when in fact James Dean died on Friday 30th September. Though in writing of the incident he has correctly said the dinner was on Friday the 23rd of September (and in the interview he also off-handedly notes "whatever the day it was"), with Dean dying within the week.

Also, when Michael Parkinson asks him if anything like that had ever happened to him before, Sir Alec replies "No, I'm glad to say". But this wasn't absolutely true: while serving in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during World War II, he was tasked with taking his craft to the island of Vis to evacuate 400 women and children ahead of an anticipated German invasion. The day before the mission - New Year's Eve, 1943 - he was resting on his bunk when he heard a voice suddenly say "Tomorrow". He wrote in his diary that he took this as a premonition of his own death during the evacuation mission - and while he obviously survived, his ship was hit by a storm and had to be abandoned after being pushed onto rocks.

It seems that, just like in the Star Wars universe, in real life Obi-Wan Kenobi had mystical powers, and yet never actually seemed to stop anything awful from happening...

Michael Persinger Defends the 'God Helmet', says Richard Dawkins Was Affected by Alcohol When He Tried It

Richard Dawkins wears the God Helmet

Many years ago 'neurotheology' researcher Michael Persinger made news with his 'God Helmet', a head-mounted apparatus that generated weak, fluctuating magnetic fields, which was reportedly able to induce mystical experiences in those wearing it. However, a 2005 study by other researchers failed to replicate Persinger's results, and the effect was written off as being due to suggestibility rather than an actual, physical change in the brain.

The 'God Helmet' has slipped from the radar since that replication failure, but Persinger has now answered many of the criticisms/accusations about his research in a series of ten blog posts. The topics range from the set-up of the experiments, through related subjects such as his Tectonic Strain Theory and Chris French's 'Haunted Room' experiment, to even noting that Richard Dawkins was perhaps a little inebriated during his own (failed) encounter with the God Helmet:

Question: Richard Dawkins is seen drinking wine or wine mixed with soda water (a “Wine Cooler”) before his session with the God Helmet in the BBC video showing his visit to your lab. Had he been drinking before the session? Will alcohol interfere with the God Helmet effects?

Answer: Yes, he had been drinking. The scent was easily noticed. In addition, he was obliged to sit in hot lights within the chamber for almost an hour as the BBC director managed several television studio details before the experiment began. This forced us to deviate from our typical protocol where the person walks into the dimly lit chamber and we begin the experiment within a few minutes. We have found that intoxication, particularly ethanol, interferes with the experimental induction of the sensed presence.

In addition, Dawkins had a low score for temporal lobe sensitivity, as mentioned on several web pages (example). Ordinarily, there are ways we can compensate, but these conditions made it difficult. Getting a subject to relax can take time before the session begins, and on that occasion, we were already pressed for time.

For those not familiar with Persinger's God Helment experiments, the episode of Through the Wormhole embedded below gives a good, quick introduction:

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Researchers Reduce Religious Prejudice with Electrical Stimulation

There was a very interesting paper published recently in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. It suggests something surprising about electro-neural stimulation and the primacy of logic.

A team of researchers collaborating between the University of York in England and UCLA have demonstrated a marked decrease in ideological belief and the use of ideology in problem solving through electrical stimulation of the posterior medial frontal cortex.

I know!  I’m as shocked as you are!

OK, seriously.  The reason this is surprising takes some explaining.

Back in the 1980’s a researcher named Michael Persinger endeavoured to study the neurological origins of creativity.  He and his research partner, Stanley Koren, created a device to test how people’s brains, and in turn their cognition of creative subjects, might be affected by electrical stimulation.  That device is now known as the God Helmet.  I’m sure you’re familiar.  If not, the God Helmet was, or is rather, a motorcycle helmet that was outfitted with wires and skin probes that would administer controlled electrical pulses to specific regions of a person’s skull, in turn introducing those pulses to specific brain regions and presumably disrupting or otherwise affecting the function of said brain region and whatever neurological purpose it served.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Well, Persinger’s research was something of a loss, but the helmet itself ended up taking on a life of its own, owing to the strange effect it had on some of the test subjects.  That effect was that they claimed to experience powerful feelings of religious bliss, hallucinations (some involving Jesus and even God), and a general euphoria described as being in heaven – hence the name God Helmet.

Since that time many people have written about the helmet and its effects, and it’s been tested (sort of) by several well-known Skeptic debunkers and personalities (most notably Richard Dawkins, who claimed to have felt a little dizzy when he tried the helmet on, but was otherwise unaffected).  It’s largely thought to be a cross between an elaborate hoax and a simple fluke of science, especially since it no longer seems to work.

Even as the God Helmet has sort of gone away in recent years, the concept of electro-neural stimulation certainly hasn’t.  Using subtle electric signals and fields to stimulate specific brain regions is now almost a field of study unto itself.  Researchers have used direct and transcranial electrical stimulation to do all kinds of neat and disturbing things to people.  In general, applying an electrical current to any one brain region results in that brain region shutting down.  It’s like an off-switch for neural function, which should make sense to you when you realise that all neural function is the product of very specific electrical signal patterns being conducted between structures.  Messing with those patterns is basically throwing a wrench into the works.

Previous experiments have been successful in manipulating different brain centers and inducing various states of consciousness or behaviour.  Back in 2013 a team used a technique called tACS or transcranial alternating current stimulation to successfully induce a lucid dream state in several volunteers.  Another team used similar techniques to erase and then restore memories in mice.  In light of these accomplishments it shouldn’t be a surprise that we can affect a person’s ideological proclivities through electrical stimulation.

What’s interesting about these new results is that stimulation of these brain centers, areas that are key to detecting and solving problems, reduced the use of ideological belief systems both in assessing problems and finding solutions.  Meaning that the test subjects were less likely to fall back on religious, political, racial, and/or social beliefs when these areas of the brain were shut down.  Sort of like a logic-supercharger.

The idea that interfering with this region of the brain serves to remove belief bias could have profound implications.  These findings may suggest that the use of ideology over reason may in fact be an evolutionary trait, and those of us who typically rely on facts rather than beliefs in our dealings with the world, might actually be a genetic abnormality.  Mutants, if you will.

At first glance, it may appear that this research contradicts the idea that the God Helmet can, or ever could, induce a profound religious experience, but it actually doesn’t.  The current results don’t eliminate the beliefs or ideologies, they simply make it less likely that the person will rely on those beliefs when interacting with the world.  If the God Helmet could enhance a person’s religious bent, then these researchers can certainly diminish it.  This might also provide something of an explanation for why some people felt the effects of the God Helmet while others didn’t.

In any event, this further confirms the local nature of our thought processes, to the chagrin of many philosophical dualists.  But even still we have far more unanswered questions than anything else.

The Shadows of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mirror


Mirrors are powerful objects to humans. From John Dee's scrying mirror, the metaphor of a black mirror popularized by the eponymous television show, and admonitions to cover a mirror under many circumstances, like the Jewish shiva or superstition.

Take Bloody Mary. There are many interpretations of this legend, but here's what I learned as a kid. At midnight, stand in darkened room facing a mirror and chant "Bloody Mary" three times. She'll appear in the reflection and bad things will happen. Fortunately, the worst that happened to me was scaring the shit out of my seven year old self. According to Wikipedia, Bloody Mary shows young girls if they will marry or if they will die.

Opie and Tatem's indispensable A Dictionary Of Superstitions expresses a measure of caution with looking glasses:

In the chamber of death .. a dread is felt of some spiritual being imaging himself forth in the blank surface of the mirror .. I suspect that the true reason for shrouding the looking-glass .. is that given me in Warwickshire, that if you look into the mirror in the death-chamber, you will see the corpse looking over your shoulder.

What are we seeing if nothing paranormal is afoot?

The obvious, and unexpected, answer is "ourselves".

A recent study with the catchy name "Dissociation and hallucinations in dyads engaged through interpersonal gazing" by Giovanni Caputo, late of the University of Urbino, reveals people who stare at other people for extended periods begin to hallucinate. Chitra Ramaswamy at The Guardian notes, "90% hallucinated a deformed face, 75% saw a monster, 50% said their partner’s face morphed into their own and 15% saw a relative’s face."

julian jaynes sketch of the human brain

The latter two statistics are intriguing, where faces became more familiar and familial. Ancient burial practices focused on imparting immortality upon the deceased. Neolithic plastered human skulls and ancient Egypt's ushabti are physical representations of the deceased, reminding our forebears of the deceased's wisdom and, likely, manifesting as visual and/or auditory hallucinations. These artifacts are part of the archaeological underpinnings of Julian Jaynes's compellingly controversial theory of the bicameral mind: that before humans became properly conscious, our actions were guided by the voices of ancestors and gods originating from our brain's right hemisphere.

Jaynes's description of consciousness, in relation to memory, proposes what people believe to be rote recollection are concepts, the platonic ideals of their office, the view out of the window, et al. These contribute to one's mental sense of place and position in the world. The memories enabling one to see themselves in the third person.

Bringing us back to Bloody Mary and Giovanni Caputo.

People staring at themselves in the mirror are looking at a different self, the unconscious visible in the conscious body. After ten minutes of eye contact humans apprehend their other half, kept in check by the rational left hemisphere. These hallucinations may communicate the subconscious's instincts and reactions kept silent during waking life. Wisdom formerly ascribed to archaic gods and the dead.

Do you trust yourself enough to give it a shot?

Dreaming While Awake


by Mike Jay

(excerpted from Darklore Volume 8, available from Amazon US and Amazon UK)

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In February 1758 the 90-year-old Charles Lullin, a retired Swiss civil servant whose sight had been progressively failing since a cataract operation five years before, began to see considerably more than he had become accustomed to. For the next several months he was visited in his apartment by a silent procession of figures, invisible to everyone but him: young men in magnificent cloaks, perfectly coiffured ladies carrying boxes on their heads, girls dancing in silks and ribbons. These visions were recorded and published in 1760 by his grandson, the naturalist Charles Bonnet, after whom the syndrome of hallucinations in the elderly and partially sighted would much later be named.

This celebrated case is one of the founding studies in the science of hallucinations, and frames the subject in distinctive ways. Most significantly, it has no link with mental illness: Lullin’s eyesight may have dimmed but his cognitive faculties were perfectly sharp, and he had no difficulty recognising his hallucinations as unreal. His experience was clearly different in kind from those experienced in psychoses such as schizophrenia: rather, it highlights the remarkable range of organic conditions, from neurological disorders to drug effects, of ‘hallucinations in the sane’.

Much has been learned in the intervening century about the brain states and optical processes that lie behind such experiences, but the old question remains: what, if anything, do such hallucinations have to tell us? They cannot be dismissed as symptoms of insanity, and nor are they purely random sensory data: on the contrary, their content is curiously consistent. Miniature people, for example, are a common sight for those with Charles Bonnet syndrome: Oliver Sacks recalls a patient who was accompanied for a couple of weeks by ‘little people a few inches high, like elves or fairies, with little green caps, climbing up the sides of her wheelchair’ 1. These little folk are also witnessed in many other circumstances: by sufferers from migraine, epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, those on mind-altering drugs such as DMT (dimethyltryptamine) or magic mushrooms, or in withdrawal from alcohol or sedatives. These are wildly different causes, but the miniature people they generate are strikingly similar. They share many curious but consistent qualities: a tendency to appear in groups, for example, or arrayed in phalanxes (‘numerosity’), to wear headgear or exotic dress, and to go about their business autonomously, paying no attention to the subject’s attempts to interact with them. Who are these little people? Do they have a message for us? And if not, what is the meaning of ... Read More »

New Study Offers Support for 'Telephone Telepathy'

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Have you ever heard the phone ring, and somehow knew the identity of the caller before you answered? Many people have reported so-called 'telephone telepathy', but skeptics generally write if off as selective memory (you remember the few times you were correct, forget the many times you were wrong) or pattern-based intuition (certain people call at certain times, or for certain reasons, which you unconciously recognise). But could it be that these experiences really do offer an insight into some sort of anomalous mind-to-mind communication?

There has in fact been some scientific testing of this idea, most notably by British scientist Rupert Sheldrake. Five experiments from 2003 onwards have all shown positive results, with hit rates above what would be expected by chance (see the video above for a short video about an experiment by Sheldrake involving 'The Nolan Sisters' - text summary here).

And now, a new study led by Sheldrake, created to explore the new possibilities of 'telephone telepathy' testing afforded by advances in digital communication technology, has reinforced those results. Here's the description of the experiment:

Participants registered online through Rupert Sheldrake's (R.S.) web site, The subjects entered their first and second names, sex, age, mobile telephone number, and email address, and also entered the names of two or three contacts (first names only) together with their mobile telephone numbers. The subject was told, “During the test, when you receive a call you will be asked to guess whether it is from contact 1, 2, or 3 (or 1 and 2 in the case of the two-caller test) so you will need to remember the order of your contacts. It will help if you put them in alphabetical order.”

There was also a field on the registration form for a group name, so when participants were part of a specific group, they all entered the same group name when registering, enabling their data to be retrieved as a group. The subject then received a welcome SMS message saying, “Thank you for entering the Telepathy Test which will start shortly. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Good luck!” The personal identification number (PIN) was a four-digit number, specific to this test. The contacts also received an SMS message saying, “Your details have been submitted by [SubjectName] as part of the Telepathy Test and the test will start shortly. Your PIN will be [nnnn].” (The subject was also told that she could stop the test at any time by calling the (landline) telephone telepathy test number (which was given at the bottom of the registration form) and pressing the star key on the keypad.)

Thus all participants' tests were pre-registered, and hence there were no data from this test in “file drawers.” The test proceeded as follows:

  1. After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, the system selected one of the contacts at random and sent a message saying, “This is the Telepathy Test. Please call [landline number] to be transferred to [SubjectName]. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Do not attempt to contact [SubjectName] directly.”
  2. The contact person then called the telephone telepathy test landline number and was asked to enter the PIN number, identifying which test the contact was part of. A voice message asked the caller, “Please stay on the line while we attempt to contact the subject.” While on hold, the subject heard music.
  3. The computer then telephoned the subject, whose caller ID display said, “Telephone telepathy test.” When the subject answered the phone, a message said, “ One of your callers is on the line. Please guess who it is by pressing 1, 2 or 3 (or 1 or 2 in two callers tests).” As soon as the guess was made it was recorded automatically, and the line opened up so the caller could talk to the subject, thus receiving immediate feedback. After a minute, the call was terminated.
  4. After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, this procedure was repeated, and then repeated again until the subject had completed six trials, at which stage the test was complete. The subject then received an SMS message saying “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. You scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.” The contacts also received SMS messages saying, “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. Subject scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.”

In tests with three callers, there were 2080 trials altogether, with a hit rate of 41.8%, well above the 33.3% hit rate expected by chance. In tests with two callers, there were 745 trials, with a hit rate of 55.2% - again, above the 50% chance hit rate. According to the researchers, the experiments "showed that it is possible to do tests for telephone telepathy using an automated system involving mobile telephones under real-life conditions", and that the "overall hit rates were positive and significantly above chance, as in previous research on telephone telepathy using landlines."

It's worth noting though that the researchers involved make clear that these tests were not 'air-tight' experiments given the ability of participants to cheat. "We did not film or supervise the participants, and hence it was possible that some were cheating", they note. "Therefore, we do not claim that positive results in these exploratory experiments are compelling evidence for telepathy". Instead, the main aim of these tests was exploratory: to point at new ways of investigating telepathy experimentally, to note problems that needed to be overcome with future tests, and also to investigate if the sex and age of the subjects had any noticeable effects (no differences were discovered on this latter point).

Link to Paper: Automated Tests for Telephone Telepathy Using Mobile Phones

Kickstarter: "Am I a Psychic" App Uses Science and Statistics to Tell Whether You've Got Psi Abilities


Research into 'psi' abilities (telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, etc.) remains on the fringes of science, with common arguments against such phenomena often coming down to the unscientific nature of how people come to believe in them - skeptics say that people often fall into the trap of selective thinking, making note of the times that something strange happened to them, and forgetting the many times that something did not.

The best way around such concerns is to do scientific testing of any suggested psi abilities, though sometimes that can be a little tricky if you're on your own. Enter a newly proposed mobile app - "Am I a Psychic?" - created by college student Dominic Parker, who is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter to complete the project:

This app is the first mobile application in the history of psychical research that is actually fun to play and actually tests your ability! There has never been anything like this before in science, which is what makes it so exciting and fun to be a part of. "Am I Psychic?" is the fruition of almost two years of planning, development and marketing.

The user can choose to play our games using either the extra sensory perception (ESP) mode or using the psychokinesis (PK) mode. Each offers the user a different and unique approach to proving their psychic ability. The ESP mode allows the user to choose between 6 options. Using psychic ability the user attempts to guess the future. Once the option is chosen, let the PRNG do the work and afterward the user can check a mathematical (but not boring) graph and see if they're psychic. The PK mode has the user choose a time limit and one of six options. Then the user attempts to mentally influence the PRNG to pick the chosen option. Once the time limit has expired the user can view a mathematical (did I say not boring?) graph and both visually and scientifically see if they're psychic.

In this 'big data' era, another upside of the app is that it will allow users to consent to allowing the results from each of their tests to be collected and analysed as part of a larger set, with possible later publication of the results in an academic research paper. (I'm hoping this consent query will be done pre-test, otherwise the 'file-drawer effect' would make the results totally unscientific).

Link: Kickstarter for "Am I a Psychic?" App

Documentary Explores the Possibility of Gaining 'Superpowers' Via Meditation and Focused Breathing

Here's a fascinating Vice documentary on the possibility of much greater conscious control of our bodies, using meditation and focused breathing to allow direct modification of our autonomic nervous system, cardiovascular system, and immune system.

Such abilities are of course part of a number of ancient Eastern traditions, but it was interesting to see it through the prism of a modern European practitioner:

Wim Hof first caught the attention of scientists when he proved he was able to stay submerged in ice for one hour and 53 minutes without his core body temperature changing. Since then, he's climbed Mount Everest in his shorts, resisted altitude sickness, completed a marathon in the Namibian Desert with no water, and proven—under a laboratory setting—that he's able to influence his autonomic nervous system and immune system at will.

Almost everything Wim has done was previously thought to be impossible, but he's not a freak of nature; he's a master of meditation.

To demonstrate that any human can learn his methods, Wim offered to teach VICE hosts Matt Shea and Daisy-May Hudson how to climb a freezing cold mountain in their shorts without getting cold. But when Matt and Daisy signed up for the training, they had no idea that the so-called Iceman was planning to lead them on a psychedelic journey across Europe that circled the chasm between science and spirituality.