Black Bag

In the February 27, 1967 edition of the Associated Press this curious news appeared:

A mysterious student has been attending a class at Oregon State University for the past two months enveloped in a big black bag. Only his bare feet show. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11:00 A.M. the Black Bag sits on a small table near the back of the classroom. The class is Speech 113 – basic persuasion… Charles Goetzinger, professor of the class, knows the identity of the person inside. None of 20 students in the class do. Goetzinger said the students’ attitude changes from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.

Ph.: Robert W. Kelly/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

The masked student never spoke. The fact that only Goetzinger knew who was hiding under the sack, and that he had sworn to keep the secret, made many suspect that the professor himself was the author of the gimmick: was it perhaps a kind of psychological experiment? Was it just a prank, or some kind of political statement?

No one ever knew, and this could ultimately remain a quaint local story. And yet, in a short time, this event changed the world. The mysterious student nicknamed “Black Bag” is the reason why you see the huge arched M of McDonald’s soar in any city; it is the reason why all the beaches are plagued with the notes of summer hits; it is the reason why you will continue to see banner ads on every web page (except this one!) even if no one ever clicks on it.

Robert Zajonc

Robert Zajonc, one of the greatest pioneers of social psychology, learned of the news about Black Bag and saw in watermark the proof of the hypothesis he was working on, and which would occupy a good part of his career.
The following year, 1968, he published his landmark study entitled “Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” (PDF) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In it, Zajonc took his cue from the case of Black Bag to explain the mere-expsoure effect, or the familiarity principle: when a new and unknown stimulus is presented to us, our first reaction is one of fear or distrust; but the more we are exposed to the same stimulus, the more we develop a positive attitude towards it.

This was exactly what had happened with Black Bag’s classmates: their attitude had changed due to the simple exposure to the presence of the mysterious student, and after the initial aggressive behavior shown towards him, they had gradually come to accept him, becoming friendly and even protective towards him.

Zajonc, for his part, had conducted various kinds of experiments in this regard. In some cases he had shown the participants different faces, words, ideograms; subsequently the subjects were asked to rate their liking of a series of images. And he found that participants were more likely to feel positive about the images they had already seen during the exposure phase.

The fact that mere exposure can create familiarity should obviously not be taken as an absolute rule, because several factors can come into play; Zajonc himself noticed that the effect tended to lessen if the exposure was too prolonged, and subsequent studies have confirmed his results but also shown that things are more complex.
The fact is that marketing, which until then had always focused on the “reasoned” account of product qualities, strengthened by Zajonc’s results, focused more on so-called brand awareness, that is, on making the brand as familiar and recognizable as possible. Less explanation, more repetition: a 2007 study showed that some students exposed to a banner ad while reading an article rated that brand more favorably than its competitors, even if they didn’t remember seeing the ad at all.

The idea that the human being privileges what is familiar was certainly not new even in 1968, but Zajonc had the merit of bringing together an impressive amount of experimental data, collected in multiple contexts and conditions, to support this thesis. In his experiments he showed that often human evaluations are not based so much on reasoning, but rather on emotional reactions — such as the positive response to familiarity. In other words: most of the time we choose what we like, and only in retrospect do we rationalize our choice, looking for logical reasons for a decision that we actually made on an emotional basis. And what we like is what we already know.

This peculiarity of our behavior, which in all probability has an evolutionary basis (choosing something well-known means limiting the unexpected), can easily become a cognitive fallacy, on which big brands make millions. We always choose the same type of pasta, or the path we have traveled a thousand times, and in doing so we lose opportunities and new discoveries.

Ph.: Gm/AP/Shutterstock

And yet … Going back to the mysterious Black Bag, are we sure that “mere exposure” can exhaust the topic? Was that all there was at stake?
One element, it seems to me, has never been taken into serious consideration in all the investigations on the episode, namely its intrinsic surrealism.

Think about it: you’re in class, and a guy dressed in a black sack walks in. This is the irruption of the fantastic into everyday life. It is the unpredictable, the weird that enters the austere and bare classroom of a university.
At first you feel staggered, perhaps a little scared but above all annoyed because that silent presence prevents you from concentrating on the words of your teacher. But then the simple fact that this “disturbing” element is breaking the monotonous routine begins to please you. Suddenly, the lesson becomes memorable.

Black Bag shows up again, and again. Will he come again on Friday? You can’t wait to know, you have to be there, who cares about the class, you need to check! And slowly you realize that there is nothing to fear in that black figure: indeed, it is making you think about many things that you had not considered before. In a formative place, where students are formed as in molds, Black Bag flaunts an irreducible individuality. A paradoxical individuality, given that his dress makes him anonymous and invisible. Invisible, yes, but heavy as a boulder: everyone knows that he’s right there, behind them. What does he think? Is he judging us? Is he snickering? And what would happen if we all went around in a bag? Maybe we would start judging people for who they really are?

In short, the essence of Black Bag’s appearance is intrinsically poetic. The fact that the students learned to love him means only one thing for me: that the bizarre opens the door to enchantment, and it is impossible, after a first, understandable reticence, not to be fascinated by it.

50 Shades of Green: Sex With Plants

This article originally appeared on
#ILLUSTRATI n.53 – L’uomo che piantava gli alberi

When I was still attending the film school, I wrote a brief script for a short film about a man who bought a flower, a big orchid. He went home, put the orchid on his bed, caressed it, kissed it and, finally, made love with it.
The subject appeared quite comical but my intention was to make a sort of test or, even better, an exercise in style: would I be able to shoot such an absurd sex scene without making it ridiculous? Would I be able to make it even romantic? Was it possible to produce the well-known “suspension of disbelief” in the audience in such an extreme situation?
At that time, I didn’t know that I wasn’t being particularly original.

There is, in fact, a real rare paraphilia, or better a form of fetishism, consisting in deriving sexual arousal from trees and plants. The term defining it is ‘dendrophilia’ and may have been coined by Lawrence Buell when referring to the famous writer Henry David Thoreau’s love of trees – a totally innocent feeling in that case.
Like other paraphilias, dendrophilia is one of those topics that can be the delight of tabloids: when the editorial staff runs out of news, they can simply send a photographer in the courtyard, to take some shots of a lady kissing a tree, and the article is done: “I want to marry a poplar!”.
But does dendrophilia really exist?

© Closer Magazine

A seminal 2007 study from Bologna University estimated that only 5% of all fetishisms refers to inanimate objects that have no relationship with the human body. Within such a low rate, it is no wonder that the more exclusive niche of people with a thing for plants can be almost invisible; this is compounded by the shame of talking about it and by the fact that this sexual preference does not cause any problem; so, you will understand why there is no record of case studies dedicated to dendrophilia in medical literature.

Assuming this sort of paraphilia exists, we can reasonably infer from what we know about the other forms of fetishism, that its manifestations could be much less weird than we expect. Most of the appeal of the fetish relies on the smell, the texture, and the appearance of the object, which becomes important on an evocative level in order to stimulate arousal. In this respect, it is likely that the potential dendrophile simply finds the texture of a bark, the smoothness or the colour of the leaves, the shape of a root extremely pleasant; contact, sometimes associated with a sexually relevant distant memory, becomes effective in stimulating arousal.

Not really different from those people who derive arousal from velvet: we tend to define fetishism on a pathological level only when it becomes a sine qua non in order to get sexual gratification and, actually, many practitioners working in the field tend to make distinctions between optional, preferred and exclusive paraphilias. Only the last ones are considered sexual disorders; this distinction, which can be found in the DSM-5 as well (the most used diagnostic manual in psychiatry), is in fact the distinction between real fetishism and fetishistic behaviour.

Last June, a little scandal broke in Palermo: among the plants of the amazing Botanical Gardens popped up a video installation by the Chinese artist Zheng Bo named Pteridophilia (literally, “love of ferns”). The video shows seven young boys having sex with plants in a Taiwan forest.

Having considered the ruckus raised by this artistic video, maybe it’s a good thing that I never realized my short film. Which, with a little plot twist, ended up playing with the subtle distinction between pathological fetishism and a simple fetishistic act “by proxy”: after making love with the orchid, the main character went to gently put it on the grave of the only woman he had ever loved.


This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n. 48, “Budo”

A man alone is always in good company.
(G. Gaber, “I soli”, in Il Teatro Canzone, 1992)

For those who had an imaginary friend as children: don’t you ever miss that buddy you used to spend your days with?
You used to have fun together, give each other advice, tell each other your hopes and fears. Such imaginary friendship – as you probably already knew back then – was nothing but a mental game; yet it helped you to find your way into the complex world of grown-ups; and maybe it was also useful to unload some frustration, or to ease some loneliness.
Of course, now that you are adults, you learnt that there must be just one voice inside your head. If grown-ups keeps talking with an imaginary friend, well, it means they are crazy.
Yet, let’s admit it: sometimes we wish we could evoke someone to get some advice, someone we could confess a secret to and know it will never be revealed…

Some people don’t give up.
Since 2010 there is a small online community, made by people practicing the so-called “tulpamancy”. Tulpamancy is the creation of secondary identities or, in a manner of speaking, imaginary friends. Such entities are called “tulpa”, and they are generated by using some techniques on the edge between Eastern meditation and psychology: a tulpamancer, i.e. anyone trying to develop a tulpa, makes it consciously and is fully aware of the fictitious nature of the character he has created. At the same time, though, they can give this character a unique and independent identity, and they can hear its voice and perceive it also in the real world – through visual, hearing, tactile, and olfactory deliberate hallucinations.

Tulpas can be very different from their creators, thus allowing different perspectives; they sometimes speak different languages or have an exotic accent; they can be vague figures or extremely detailed characters with their own clothing and accessories; they have their own personality, tastes and skills.
They can help their tulpamancer in the most various ways: it could be a simple chat, or sometimes something more.

For example, one of the most detailed research on this subject (S. Veissière, Varieties of Tulpa Experiences: Sentient Imaginary Friends, Embodied Joint Attention, and Hypnotic Sociality in a Wired World, 2015), reports the experience of a girl who one day was particularly cold: her tulpa put an imaginary blanket on her shoulders, and almost magically she felt really warm. There are even some techniques that allow tulpas to temporarily take control of the “host” body, which therefore finds itself performing tasks it wouldn’t be able to accomplish alone.

At first glance, it can look crazy to create a multiple personality on purpose: the dissociative identity disorder is a serious pathology (some years ago I interviewed for this blog a woman hosting in her mind 27 alter egos, and her life wasn’t easy at all).
The crucial difference resides in the intention of this act, which allows to manage it: since it was created intentionally, a tulpa is a projection of the mind whose purpose is only positive, productive, supportive. Thus, tulpamancy can’t be considered as a pathology, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the functionality of the person. On the contrary, people devoted to this practice report it generated significant improvements in the quality of their lives, and even in social interactions. Many of them report they found an effective method to escape from loneliness and fight anxiety. Some of them even have sentimental or sexual relationships with their tulpas (although the community frowns upon this point, which is still controversial).

Despite being a very limited underground phenomenon, tulpamancy immediately caught the attention of anthropologists and psychologists. The method for the creation of new personalities could be indeed extremely interesting for cognitive sciences, ethnology, ethnobiology, linguistic anthropology, neurosciences, and hypnosis social studies.

“There must be just one voice inside your head”, we were saying. Our culture pushes us to believe that our identity is unique, indivisible. Nevertheless, in the last twenty years of psychological research, the hypothesis of a multiple, liquid identity has become more and more plausible. According to some scholars, people could be divided into two main groups: those who keep a diachronic vision of their life, as if it was the autobiography of a well-defined first-person narrator, and those who perceive their existence like a series of episodes, and that see their past as made of different moments and evolution steps when their personality was totally different from the current one.

In other words: our interior narrations, the way we “narrate ourselves” to ourselves, are complex, and the famous theory of “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand” by Pirandello is maybe closer to the truth than we think.
So, as tulpamancers say, why don’t transform all this material into a true resource, by nurturing imaginary friendships?
We would all be a little crazier, but also happier.

The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).

Subversive farts & musical anuses

Those who have been reading me for some time know my love for unconventional stories, and my stubborn belief that if you dig deep enough into any topic, no matter how apparently inappropriate, it is possible to find some small enlightenments.
In this post we will attempt yet another tightrope walking exercise. Starting from a question that might sound ridiculous at first: can flatulence give us some insight about human nature?

An article appeared on the Petit Journal on May 1st 1894 described “a more or less lyrical artist whose melodies, songs without words, do not come exactly from the heart. To do him justice it must be said that he has pioneered something entirely his own, warbling from the depth of his pants those trills which others, their eyes towards heaven, beam at the ceiling“.
The sensational performer the Parisian newspaper was referring to was Joseph Pujol, famous by his stage name Le Pétomane.

Born in Marseille, and not yet thirty-seven at the time, Pujol had initially brought his act throughout the South of France, in Cette, Béziers, Nîmes, Toulouse and Bordeaux, before eventually landing in Paris, where he performed for several years at the Moulin Rouge.
His very popular show was entirely based on his extraordinary abilities in passing wind: he was able to mimic the sound of different musical instruments, cannon shots, thunders; he could modulate several popular melodies, such as La Marseillese, Au clair de la lune, O sole mio; he could blow out candles with an air blast from 30 centimeters away; he could play flutes and ocarinas through a tube connected with his derriere, with which he was also able to smoke a cigarette.
Enjoying an ever-increasing success between XIX and XX Century, he even performed before the Prince of Whales, and Freud himself attended one of his shows (although he seemed more interested in the audience reactions rather than the act itself).

Pujol had discovered his peculiar talent by chance at the age of thirteen, when he was swimming in the sea of his French Riviera. After sensing a piercing cold in his intestine, he hurried back to the shore and, inside a bathing-hut, he discovered that his anus had, for some reason, taken in a good amount of sea water. Experimenting throughout the following years, Pujol trained himself to suck air into his bottom; he could not hold it for very long, but this bizarre gift guaranteed him a certain notoriety among his peers at first, and later among his fellow soldiers when he joined the army.
Once he had reached stage fame, and was already a celebrated artist, Pujol was examined by several doctors who were interested in studying his anatomy and physiology. Medicine papers are a kind of literature I very much enjoy reading, but few are as delectable as the article penned by Dr. Marcel Badouin and published in 1892 on the Semaine médicale with the title Un cas extraordinaire d’aspiration rectale et d’anus musical (“An extraordinary case of rectal aspiration and musical anus”). If you get by in French, you can read it here.
Among other curiosities, in the article we discover that one of Pujol’s abilities (never included in his acts on grounds of decency) was to sit in a washbowl, sucking in the water and spraying it in a strong gush up to a five-meter distance.

The end of Joseph Pujol’s carreer coincided with the beginning of the First World War. Aware of the unprecedented inhumanity of the conflict, Pujol decided that his ridiculous and slightly shameful art was no longer suitable in front of such a cruel moment, and he retired for good to be a baker, his father’s job, until his death in 1945.
For a long time his figure was removed, as if he was an embarassement for the bougeoisie and those French intellectuals who just a few years earlier were laughing at this strange ham actor’s number. He came back to the spotlight only in the second half of XX Century, namely because of a biography published by Pauvert and of the movie Il Petomane (1983) directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, in which the title character is played by Italian comedian Ugo Tognazzi with his trademark bittersweet acting style (the film on the other hand was never released in France).

Actually Pujol was not the first nor the last “pétomane”. Among his forerunners there was Roland the Farter, who lived in XII-Century England and who earned 30 acres of land and a huge manorfor his services as a buffoon under King Henry II. By contract he went on to perform before the sovereign, at Christmas, “unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” (one jump, one whistle and one fart).
But the earliest professional farter we know about must be a medieval jester called Braigetóir, active in Ireland and depicted in the most famous plate of John Derricke’s The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne (1581).

The only one attempting to repeat Pujol’s exploits in modern times is British performer Paul Oldfield, known as Mr. Methane, who besides appearing on Britain’s Got Talent also recorded an album and launched his own Android app. If you look for some of his videos on YouTube, you will notice how times have unfortunately changed since the distinguished elegance shown by Pujol in the only remaining silent film of his act.

Let’s get back now to our initial question. What does the story of Joseph Pujol, and professional farters in general, tell us? What is the reason of their success? Why does a fart make us laugh?

Flatulence, as all others bodily expressions associated with disgust, is a cultural taboo. This means that the associated prohibition is variable in time and latitude, it is acquired and not “natural”: it is not innate, but rather something we are taught since a very early age (and we all know what kind of filthy behavior kids are capable of).
Anthropologists link this horror for bodily fluids and emissions to the fear of our animal, pre-civilized heritage; the fear that we might become primitive again, the fear of seeing our middle-class ideal of dignity and cleanliness crumble under the pressure of a remainder of bestiality. It is the same reason for which societies progressively ban cruelty, believed to be an “inhuman” trait.

The interesting fact is that the birth of this family of taboos can be historically, albeit conventionally, traced: the process of civilization (and thus the erection of this social barrier or fronteer) is usually dated back to the XVI and XVII Centuries — which not by chance saw the growing popularity of Della Casa’s etiquette treatise Il Galateo.
In this period, right at the end of the Middle Ages, Western culture begins to establish behavioral rules to limit and codify what is considered respectable.

But in time (as Freud asserted) the taboo is perceived as a burden and a constriction. Therefore a society can look for, or create, certain environments that make it acceptable for a brief period to bend the rules, and escape the discipline. This very mechanism was behind the balsphemous inversions taking place in Carnival times, which were accepted only because strictly limited to a specific time of the year.

In much the same way, Pujol’s fart shows were liberating experiences, only possible on a theatrical stage, in the satyrical context of cabaret. By fracturing the idealistic facade of the gentleman for an hour or so, and counterposing the image of the physiological man, the obscenity of the flesh and its embarassements, Pujol on a first level seemed to mock bourgeois conventions (as later did Buñuel in the infamous dinner scene from his 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty).
Had this been the case, had Pujol’s act been simply subversive, it would had been perceived as offensive and labeled as despicable; his success, on the other hand, seems to point in another direction.

It’s much more plausible that Pujol, with his contrived and refined manners conflicting with the grotesque intestinal noises, was posing as a sort of stock comic character, a marionette, a harmless jester: thanks to this distance, he could arguably enact a true cathartic ritual. The audience laughed at his lewd feats, but were also secretely able to laugh at themselves, at the indecent nature of their bodies. And maybe to accept a bit more their own repressed flaws.

Perhaps that’s the intuition this brief, improper excursus can give us: each time a fart in a movie or a gross toilet humor joke makes us chuckle, we are actually enacting both a defense and an exorcism against the reality we most struggle to accept: the fact that we still, and anyway, belong to the animal kingdom.