Student Questions: Bird Gender and Bad Karma

Skeptoid answers questions sent in by students all around the world.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #233
November 23, 2010
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Today we're going to tackle another round of questions sent in by students all around the world. Teachers, let your students know about this resource. Submitting a question through the web site is quick and easy; all you need is a computer with a microphone built in. Our questions in this round pertain to whether food preservatives cause your body to be automatically embalmed when you die; the benefits of playing music for unborn fetuses; whether violent video games create violent people; sexing a bird with a pendulum; and whether karma actually exists. Let's get started with food preservatives:

Ben Schmidt, from the Worsham College of Mortuary Science. There is an urban legend claiming that embalming is easier thanks to food preservatives. Can you please address this?

This is a really popular urban legend. Supposedly, we eat so much prepared food these days that when we die, our bodies are laced with preservatives and are automatically embalmed. The simple answer to this is that it's completely untrue, since common food preservatives are very easily metabolized by the body. Even the most basic embalming fluid, formaldehyde, is naturally found in the human body as it's a byproduct of metabolism. It seems paradoxical, but chemicals such as alcohol, salt, and formaldehyde preserve our bodies when we die, but are naturally consumed and processed by a living body. Antioxidants are a fundamental food preservative, yet are widely marketed as miracle health products.

That's not to say that food preservatives are without risk. Ongoing research continues to scrutinize food preservatives for health concerns, and plenty of studies have found danger, though most of it inconclusive. But even the worst of this finds that some synthetic food preservatives may be correlated with effects such as attention deficit disorder, or anaphylactic shock for those allergic to them. Preventing your body from decomposing has never been among the observed effects.

Hi, I'm Daniel, age 15, and I want to know: Is playing music for an unborn child really beneficial to its development?

Playing music to unborn babies is, first and foremost, a way to sell snake oil — in the form of "special" musical recordings — to mothers desperate to breed superior children. It is also one way to get a late-term fetus to react to sound. No good research has ever shown that this reactivity has any benefits.

The audio environment inside the womb is a peaceful one, and filled with natural low frequency rhythms. The mother's breathing and heartbeat are the dominant sounds, followed by low frequency external sounds below 50 Hz, and the mother's own voice. It's unlikely that any of the higher frequency sounds of music, anything above about 500 Hz, could be heard by the fetus at all unless it's extremely loud. By about 25 weeks into gestation, the fetus is able to hear sounds, and will often react with a faster heartbeat to noise. Simple tapping on the mother's abdomen is a far more effective way to transmit low frequency rhythm than playing music, most of which can't be heard anyway. But once again, though the reaction is definite, there is no good reason to think this carries any benefit.

Claims that babies can remember and recognize certain music are highly improbable, as the hippocampus (that part of the brain that stores experiences in memory) does not develop until well after birth. People who say that their newborn appears to smile or react upon hearing the same music played during gestation are probably just experiencing confirmation bias: They think it's so, therefore they notice behavior that confirms the belief, and fail to notice behavior that doesn't.

In any case, avoid buying special musical recordings that claim to be supported by research that shows the music will benefit the child. If you choose to entertain your fetus, any low frequency beat is all it takes.

Hi, my name is Andrew from California, and I would like to know if violent video games promote violence in youth?

This is one of those topics on which everyone seems to have an opinion, including researchers; and those opinions and conclusions are all over the map. I spent a few hours and looked through a couple of dozen different studies in various journals, including a number of meta-analyses of even more studies. The only thing that I learned for sure is that there are two clearly defined camps, and they're still going at it hammer and tongs. Many researchers are steadfastly convinced that gamers do not become more aggressive in real life, but a larger number of researchers find that there is a correlation. The battle between research camps is at least as heated as the battles onscreen.

Many researchers note that the environment in which we develop plays a large role influencing our personalities. If that environment includes violent games, it would make sense for such behavior to become ingrained. And, according to my own quick survey of the research, the majority of observational evidence does indicate that violent game play is a predictor of future aggressive behavior. But it's not clear how much of the effect is causal. One thing that nearly everyone seems to agree on is that more aggressive people tend to gravitate toward more aggressive games, so we should expect to see a correlation regardless.

Interestingly, my observation was that most research supporting a link seems to come from Europe, while most research dismissing the link comes from the United States. Both sides almost always report their findings as cross cultural.

Whatever effect there may be is probably small, and does not appear to significantly affect the vast majority of people. Therefore, if you play a lot of Call of Duty, you (or any other given gamer) are unlikely to become more aggressive in real life, so fire away. It's going to be interesting to see how this particular battle shakes out.

I recently purchased a pet bird and was told I could determine the sex using a magnetic pendulum. If it spins in a circle, the bird is a female. If back and forth, it's a male. Is there a natural mechanism to explain this apparent phenomenon?

Yes there is, but it has nothing to do with the bird's gender or magnetism. It's called the ideomotor effect. This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that's been tested and retested extensively. It involves unconscious movements by the experimenter's own hand that causes a pendulum, dowsing rod, or Ouija Board planchette to move in the manner expected by the experimenter. These movements can be so minute that the experimenter is unaware they're even happening. Consequently, many dowsers have a fully honest belief that their perceived ability is indeed of supernatural origin.

Regarding your bird's gender and magnetic pendulums, there is demonstrably no such effect. This would require that birds generate a reasonably powerful electromagnetic field that oscillates or changes polarity according to a gender-dependent pattern.

If you have any doubts, place a compass on a solid surface near your bird or any other animal. A compass needle is a magnetic pendulum that weighs much less than your pendulum and should react much more dramatically. You'll see that once your hand's movements are taken out of the picture, your bird does not emit any sort of pulsing magnetic force, regardless of its gender.

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Hey Brian, I'm Mike from Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, and I was wondering if there is any real evidence that people have bad or good karma.

Karma is a concept originating in ancient India in which your actions, either good or bad, have consequences. Rob a bank and you'll get cancer; give to the poor and you'll live a long fulfilling life. While it sounds like it should be relatively easy to set up a small test of this concept, true karma is not really testable for a couple of reasons. First, the timeframe for payback is often believed to be over multiple reincarnations of your life; and second, it's not necessarily a linear system. Robbing a bank today could be the cause of falling and skinning your knee when you were six, or of having to live a previous life as a slug.

Even designing a test to correlate some people who have generally good or bad luck with generally good or bad actions would be problematic, as it would be impossible to control for much more powerful influences such as their socio-economic status, their intelligence, personality, etc.

Belief in karma, however, is a different story. At least one study has found that belief in karma may be associated with personal experience of trauma. This is an interesting result. When something bad happens, people tend to seek an explanation, a reason, even if it means blaming themselves. Such a tendency may well explain how the concept of karma came to be in the first place.

Got a question you'd like Skeptoid to answer? If you're a student of any age, come to and click on Student Questions.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Abrams, R. Perception and Cognition of Music. Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 1995. 83-101.

Anderson, C., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E., Bushman, B., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H., Saleem, M. "Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review." Psychological Bulletin. 11 Dec. 2009, Volume 136, Number 2: 151-173.

Easton, R., Shor, R. "An Experimental Analysis of the Chevreul Pendulum Illusion." Journal of General Psychology. 1 Jul. 1976, Volume 95: 111-125.

Ferguson, C., Kilburn, J. "Much Ado About Nothing: The Misestimation and Overinterpretation of Violent Video Game Effects in Eastern and Western Nations: Comment on Anderson et. al." Psychological Bulletin. 11 Dec. 2009, Volume 136, Number 2: 174-178.

McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K., Kitchin, E., Lok, K., Porteous, L., Prince, E., Sonuga-Barke, E., Warner, J., Stevenson, J. "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8-to-9-year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial." The Lancet. 3 Nov. 2007, Volume 370, Issue 9598: 1560-1567.

Stock, A. and C. "A Short History of Ideo-Motor Action." Psychological Research. 1 Apr. 2004, Volume 68, Numbers 2-3: 176-188.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Bird Gender and Bad Karma." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 23 Nov 2010. Web. 31 Aug 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 59 comments

I live close to the area where the riots referred to occurred. A major cause was a beach turf war. Islamic families maintaining in their daughters and wives a strong covering up dress code, were offended when non muslims in usual beach gear came in the vicinity of their women. This was made worse when they tried to restrict use of beach swimming pools when their women were swimming

Most of the muslim families came from far outside the suburb concerned and really needed explaining to them that beaches in Australia are shared at all times. If they weren't prepared to share they should not have been there. I have a 68 year old friend who was criticised by a nine year old child sent across by the family when he walked past them, along the beach, in swimming trunks. He has lived in the suburb for decades and was deeply offended. He is no racist

Hot day, turf arguments and a background of irritation and it exploded. The police intervened far too late - in fact MONTHS too late

It was an unpleasant incident but very rare. Everyone in the row eats kebabs and Lebanese food, very popular here - and now - down the track the incident is mostly forgotten

We aren't perfect here. Indigenous people were treated very badly. But I honestly think we try harder than anywhere else. The Burqa and head coverings are not liked here because Australians are great defenders of personal freedom and view them, perhaps incorrectly, as family repression from males in the muslim families.

Phi, Sydney
March 15, 2011 9:16pm

Huh? I am a local.. that "turf war" was about mindless young folk getting idiotic ideas about their non ethnic rights.

It was a statement of what is 1km^2 and has an IQ of 1.2?

A disgusting reflection of a disreputable campaign that is an embarrasment if the true position is reflected.

Phi, it was a riot by morons. A reflection of low achievers mentality. I hope all who took part are still spending time in the slammer.

Your views may reflect the voice of a local radio.

I still see some of our trad dress going on.. is it then right to have a riot every time we have a funeral?

Phi please get a reality injection. Read Dunning's posts rather than comment on what Cam and Tom says.

Crikeys, I hope I dont bump into you surfing or fishing Phiona.

Henk van der Gaast, sydney, Australia
March 19, 2011 8:32pm

Like I say Henk I am a local. I am not supporting the rioters and I never listen to talk back radio.

I'll give you one more local incident and leave it there. A small dog which admittedly should not have been on a nearly deserted beach approached a middle eastern family who were visiting the area. The owner recalled it immediately

One of the men grabbed the dog - pulled a knife and slit its throat in front of the owner.

Sorry but it happened. If the wrong people had been there, there might have been a very dangerous incident. But the locals let it pass because they are generally hospitable people who welcome normally delightful visitors. Why let one rotten egg spoil everything?

I too as a migrant had to learn what local people expect, how they live. But as an English speaking person it was less difficult for me. I'm still learning after thirty years.

Tolerance goes both ways. A visitor or a new arrival has much to learn, and we could make it easier - especially in terms of housing and opportunities to integrate. I have a good relationship because I spend a lot of time in "ethnic communities" I buy there. They call me 'bro" and I am honoured and proud of it.

When my child was born I spent many hours every day in a Lebanese corner shop where the father treated me at times like his own son. It grieves me to see situations arise which could be prevented through early intervention and where the normal hospitality of peoples is allowed to descend into tribalism.

Phi, Sydney
March 23, 2011 1:33am

Damn, how many times are you going to post heresay events?

I invoke Godwin's rule before it gets too late Phiona.

Henk van der Gaast, sydney, Australia
March 23, 2011 4:25am

I know the people concerned very well and checked the facts - but I only quote them to inform WHY I personally hold a particular view

Maybe you could get out more and see what is happening on the streets and beaches. I deliberately balanced the negative experience with the positive one

By the way, Henk, purely for the record I don't particularly like you either but I try to keep that out of my posts - you don't. Yours are riddled with personal attack

Phi, Sydney
April 5, 2011 6:02pm

Regarding violent gaming, I read Game Informer magazine. Recently they published a summary of a study that suggested that games have no definitive effect. Moreso, they said that generally calm people who play games improve over time where ill tempered people gradually get worse. These long term effects can be caused by anything and weren't tied to gaming so much as the person's attitude. I don't know the specifics or what their control group was (Probably two groups of similar people minus gaming), but I'll see if I can repost a source as soon as I find it.

As for Karma, I believe in it but only to the extent of a psychosomatic effect. I use the term believe because I haven't bothered to look at research done, if any. Ultimately, it's the same concept as a conscience for me. If I do something bad, accidental or no, I'm going to be 'off my game'. In order to avoid punishing myself later due to worrying about it, I can try to fix it or make up for it somehow. I've got to say, I enjoyed watching My Name is Earl and would never begrudge anyone their moral code, but I don't think it's more than that.

Axel, AG,CA
April 27, 2011 9:39am

Violent Video Games

I've recently come across a couple of blogs suggesting that game design is a big factor in affecting the players, and not necessarily the violence & content.

Interview with a game designer who thinks Farmsville is designed to be a negative experience, as it forces the player to exploit their friends so the game company can monetize on this.

These guys talk about how game mechanics can force players to be jerks while playing, which would explain why it seems like everybody who plays that certain game are jerks. They go into specific details.

I tend to agree with the assessment of game mechanics as I've noticed certain MMO's try to maximize addiction while giving you minimum enjoyment so they can keep profiting on your subscription each month. I can see this as a vicious cycle of frustration to the player.

Oh yeah also, videos games have been declared as Art by the US Supreme Court.

Henry, Vancouver, BC
June 29, 2011 7:16pm

Henry: Look into the concept of a Skinner Box. ;)

Gregory, Alabama
August 24, 2011 9:30pm

ref: Karma

First off I need to admit I don't
have the 35 bucks to download the
pubished study you linked to but
from the summary you gave I'm thinking the originatoros should have sat down and decided what they
meant my Karma before doing the study.
By "non-white" I'm assuming (sorry) that they meant Asian and
very probably of Buddhist/Hindu background. All very fine... but.
Sit down with 100 Catholics and ask for an explanaiton of Transubstantiation and you will probably get 40 different stories.
I did this once with a (single) life-time catholic with a copy of
the Catisism open on the table and she still managed to get it wrong.
If I develop cancer thats the result of a mix mash of bio-chemical actions, good ol cause and effect. If at the same time I maintain a calm and peaceful mind that's positive karma rippening.
Karma refers to mental actions only - how I respond to a situation mentally, not the actual event.

Samdrub, Ottawa,Ontario
June 4, 2012 8:37am

Samdrub, no matter how thee doth protest about your self ripening, I would prefer that you still kept medical attention during such a scenario.

I have personally seen people die as the "ripened" maintaining their philosophy.

Not so bad if you are an old codger like me, but two mid thirties folk is a bit much to bear..

Husband and wife team no less. Buried within a week of each other.

PS as far as I know, catholics as most christians are not that big on biblical or practical christianity. They have moved on a bit in the past 60 years.

Mud (hayfevered and none too pleased), out to pasture, NSW, in many gardens, Oz
July 17, 2012 12:02am

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