SGU Episode 579

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SGU Episode 579
August 13th 2016
SGU 578 SGU 580
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
DG: David Gorski
Quote of the Week
Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny — and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).
Stephen Jay Gould
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, August 10th, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

Interview with David Gorski: Natural News (2:14)[edit]

What's the Word: Hypnagogia (9:00)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, get us started with What's the Word.

C: All right! So the word this week hypnagogia, and this is of course, a word that Steve should be quite familiar with as a neurologist. I came across this word, the most recent time, in Oliver Sach's book, Hallucinations.

Hypnagogia is defined as the state of drowsiness that immediately preceeds sleep. And, we often actually hear this word in its adjective form. In fact, it was coined in its adjective form, hypnagogic. And hypnagogic hallucination is one that is really vivid, it's very dream-like, but it occurs as one is falling asleep. So it's a little bit distinguished from a dream.

And this is opposed to a very similar, but kind of opposite word, which is hypnopompic. It's opposed to hypnopompic hallucination, which occurs as you are waking up. Now, it's widely hypothesized that alien abduction hallucinations occur during these stages because they're super-vivid, and they often accompany this near-total paralysis experience.

And perhaps the most famous hypnagogic hallucination was described by Freiderick August Kekul Von Stradenitz. He is the German chemist

B: Whoa!

C: who

E: You sure he's German?

C: - yes, he's very German -and he first described the Benzene ring, and he claims that during this kind of hypnagogic state, this concept came to him because he saw a snake biting its own tail.

B: That's so cool.

S: Interesting

C: Yeah

S: Have any of you guys ever had a hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination?

E: I don't think I have.

B: Sure, not as much as you, but I've had little ones.

S: David, have you ever had one?

DG: I'm not sure. I do think I've had a couple where I thought I'd seen people like standing over me, momentarily, kind of freaked me out.

S: So more subtle ones, where you're not just sure if you're dreaming or not, or just had like a brief, auditory or visual hallucination. Yeah, but I've had full-blown hypnopompic, and sometimes hypnogogic hallucinations, often triggered by being sleep-deprived. But the full – the ones that happen typically when I'm falling asleep, the classic episode, is that, sort of having a hard time falling fully asleep, and then I get stuck in this state. And the core features are that I'm paralyzed. Sleep paralysis is always the – that's the most common feature of these episodes.

And that is, sleep paralysis can happen independently, you guys are just paralyzed upon waking up? Did you guys ever experience that?

C: I have, yeah.

E: Yeah

C: Without any hallucinations.

E: Something like it, yeah.

B: But to put that into context, that is actually, that's natural, actually. When you're sleeping, when you're having rem sleep, your body is paralyzed. You do not move. And the reason your body does that, it's very nice, because otherwise you would act out your dream, and

S: Yeah

B: fall down the stairs, jump out a window. So this is something that's part of natural sleep. So your brain is kind of screwing up, and so you've got one aspect of sleep, the paralysis, and also the hallucinations, but you're also kind of semi-awake. And that's kind of

S: Yeah

B: what hypnagogia is, in a nut shell.

S: But often, is also a fear component, and the fear is just like, neurological. It's like, your fear circuits are firing. The fact that you're paralyzed and hallucinating doesn't help, and that can sort of trigger fear as well. But the fear that you experience

E: Yeah

S: is way beyond that. 'Cause even when I know it's happening, 'cause now, I totally know what's happening, and it does help, but it doesn't prevent the fear response that you get in that situation.

C: So I want the content! Come on! You're stepping on the lead.

S: I've never had like, aliens or anything like that, although my hallucinations tend more towards the demonic end of the spectrum.

B: Cool!

S: It's usually that there's a very menacing presence in the room. Could be supernatural or not, could be just there's a thief in the room. There's a menacing presence in the room. That's also very common feature. So, imagine, you're paralyzed, and you can't even look to see if something is there.

C: Yeah

S: You're pretty sure there's

C: Just out of your eyes

S: something just out of your range of vision, but you can't turn your head

E: No, can't you, eh?

S: to confirm

C: Oof!

S: or not. But then, the harder I try to move, or to turn my head, or to wake up, often I know what's happening, so I'm trying to wake up. The most common response is that I dream that I wake up.

(Cara chuckles)

S: And I've had situations where I've dreamt I've woken up, like, a dozen times before I actually wake up.

B: Wow

E: That's frustrating.

C: So, you must wake up so sweaty, and just like, ugh! Like, exhausted

E: What the hell was that?

C: from stress!

S: I'm glad when I actually wake up, 'cause then, like, when I dream that I wake up, I'm not sure if I'm awake or not. I'm trying to test, or convince myself. So, I'll do stuff, and everything seems hyper-real. So it's hard to tell, you know, like I walk across the room. I might go into the other room, and sit down at my computer, or whatever. And it all seems real to me at the time.

B: Did you ever find yourself in that position – again, there's two tests, two classic tests that you can do, I learned while I was studying lucid dreaming. If you want to know if you're in a dream, two things: Try to break the laws of physics, like say, jump up in the air, and then try to land a little more slowly than you would in Earth normal gravity. That's one key indicator that you're dreaming.

The other one, and much easier, is to read something. Look at some text, open a book, read it, turn away, look back at the text, and almost invariably, that text will change. If that happens, you're dreaming.

S: The problem is, this is not lucid dreaming. So, you don't really have that much control over what's happening, you know what I mean? It's just

C: Yeah, it's more passive, like it's happening to you.

S: Yeah, exactly. You're not really lucid, you know. That's the problem. So ...

C: So, Steve, I'm interested, do you notice a difference between your hypnagogic hallucinations and your hypnopompic hallucinations? Is one more fear-inducing? Do they have different content? Or do you find that it's just kind of two sides of the same coin?

S: They're both very similar. The hypnopompic ones, when I'm waking up, I'm more likely to dream waking up in those episodes,

C: Yeah

S: than when it's late at night. What does matter, the variable that seems to matter the most, is how sleep-deprived I am. The more sleep-deprived I am, the worse it is, dramatically so. So, the times when I've been the most sleep-deprived, I've had full-blown hallucinations, like floating out of the bed, or floating out of the chair, like physical sensations, like a fluttering sensation. So it's much more intense.

C: That's very common. Even in a normal population, sleep deprivation can induce these types of waking, or sleeping hallucinations. And beyond that, it can obviously show up paired with different types of brain damage, with different types of sensory deficits, blindness, hearing problems.

S: Sleep disorders.

C: Sleep disorders, definitely. Those are big catalysts for it. I don't want to forget about the etymology of this wonderful term. Hypnogogic is actually pretty recent term. It was coined by physician, Louis Ferdinand Alfred Morry in 1868. His studies of consciousness and dream interpretation in France, where he first came up with this, were influential to Sigmund Freud. He actually predated him. And he's often mentioned in Freud's writings.

Hypnogogic comes from the French hypnogogic, from the Greek hypnos, meaning sleep, and agogos, meaning leading to. So, from an etymological perspective, the word breaks down to “inducing sleep.” And some uses are in line with that. Sometimes you'll hear it in the medical literature. A hypnogogic something is something that actually causes someone to fall asleep.

But the general use of the term, and actually the general, medical use of the term too, relates to the state of consciousness that occurs right between wakefulness and sleep.

B: It can involve any of your senses, really. One that's happened to me more than any other is purely auditory. And actually, I think you could actually test this. So, you might want to be interested in trying this at night. Tonight, when you go to sleep, as you're drowsing, you're very drowsy, you're dozing off, and you're really, really sleepy, say your name to yourself over and over. And the times that I've done that, almost every time I do it, I eventually will hear my name out loud.

I mean, this is completely indistinguishable from somebody five feet away just saying, “Bob.” And it's striking. And you know that it's not real. But it's very convincing.

S: And there are studies that show that there are those connections in the brain. There are connections from the higher brain processing areas to the primary, sensory processing areas. And they actually can create primary sensations. Your expectations, your beliefs, whatever, which actually relates to the next news item, or the first news item that we're gonna talk about.

News Items[edit]

Now You Don't See It (18:10)[edit]

(Psychologists study a magic trick where something disappears. Can it work without people seeing the initial object?)

(Commercial at 30:06)

Piltdown Case Closed (31:35)[edit]

(A hoax from 1912)

Black Hole Back Doors (39:38)[edit]

S: All right, Bob. I understand there's a back door to get into black holes. What does that even mean?

B: Not so much get in; more get out.

S: Okay

B: But researchers have proposed a solution for some pesky black hole problems by showing that natural processes could form a wormhole at the core, allowing mass and energy to escape through what everyone seems to be calling “a backdoor.” So yes, a black hole back door. Evan, don't even say it. I know you want to.

C: I can't even help myself right now.

B: I know.

C: It's swelling up.

B: Think it, don't say it.


E: Mum's the word.

B: Black holes are of course the most awesome things in the universe. Don't even try to deny it. But the science describing them has some problems. Equations predict for example infinite density, infinite temperature and curvature at a black hole's central singularity; and infinities basically are just not nice. Generally, they mean that there's a missing piece to your theory.

So maybe there's a new theory that could move the infinities of a black hole, just like quantum mechanics did for classical physics; and that has been the hope for many years, what's being called “quantum gravity.” But maybe we don't need a completely new theory to remove the infinities. Maybe we just needed to look at a black hole singularity differently; and that's exactly what researchers at the Institute of Cuspular Physics (I love it) in Valencia.

DG: What an awesome name!

B: Gonzalo ... yeah, right?

S: What's capuscular physics?

DG: That's a good question.

C: Oh, a minute particle regarded as the basic constituent of matter or light, historically.

B: Awesome! So they looked at black hole singularities not as infinity-producing mysteries, but as a geometric structural imperfection in space-time. Gonzalo on the study, he had a really good quote on this. He said, “Just as crystals have imperfections in their microscopic structure, the central region of a black hole can be interpreted as an anomaly in space-time, which requires new geometric elements in order to be able to describe them more precisely. So that's exactly what they're doing here.

So once they examine these singularities from this perspective, something interesting happened. In their model, out popped - the center of the black hole became a spherical surface, which the team interpret to be a wormhole. I'm not sure why they go from spherical surface to wormhole. I wasn't able to find out why they made that kind of conceptual leap, but that's what they're going with.

So this door in space-time at the center of a black hole that they're hypothesizing is what makes those annoying infinities disappear, because the mass-energy that's absorbed into the black hole do not compress into this puff of problematic infinities, or a cosmological blue screen if you will. But it just escapes somewhere else, perhaps another part of space-time is what they're saying, which is what wormholes are said to do.

But if that's not enough, there's another benefit to this hypothesis. We've long-thought that to hold open a wormhole, to transmit data say, or even an astronaut, you need something. What is this substance called, guys? What do you need to prop open a wormhole so it's big enough?

S: Antimatter?

B: Nope, exotic matter.

S: That's exotic matter, right.

B: Right. And this is supposed to have negative energy density, something that we've never seen in nature, and which may not even exist at all. So if this theory or hypothesis is correct, you would need to create exotic matter because its whole existence essentially becomes obviated if that's even a valid form of that word.

S: What about erotic matter? Could you use that?

(Rogues laugh)

B: Always. Yeah, so the exotic matter is no longer needed, because it's actually occurring naturally in the wormhole itself. So, I know what you're thinking now: What does this mean for an astronaut going through this? So, the idea is that this wormhole in its natural state would be super-tiny, like the size of an atomic nucleus, nothing really is gonna get through there. But the more that the black hole has an electric charge, the bigger the wormhole is. So if it has enough charge, it'll be big enough so that an astronaut will go through there. Now you still kind of get spaghettified because you have some major tidal forces going on.

C: Kind of die?

B: So it's not fun. But weirdly, what they say is that you would get recompacted as you exit the wormhole. So sure, you're not gonna live, but you'll kinda look kinda like how you did ... (Cara laughs) before you went in. You wouldn't be spaghetti, you'd be kind of conglomerated back together in a way.

C: I don't think biology works that way though. Physics might, but biology doesn't.

B: Yeah, you'd look somewhat human-like, but certainly not living! So that's their argument. You know, I wasn't able to find any commentary by a physicist debunking this. I didn't get a chance to two of my go-to physicists to comment on this. But I haven't found any definitive smack-down by somebody who knows more about this shit than I do.

S: Well, maybe we'll hear from them.

E: Yes.

B: Yeah, I'll give an update, sure.

Cupping at the Olympics (44:50)[edit]

(Ridiculous Chinese medicine that's basically blood-letting)

Other Olympic Pseudoscience (51:43)[edit]

Dumbest Thing of the Week: Hillary Clinton's Health (59:22)[edit]

S: Let's move on to – this is actually going to be an installment of The Dumbest Thing of the Week. This really pissed me off.

C: Ooh hoo!

E: Ooh!

S: This is triggered by an email I got from John White, although I was starting to see some of this myself. John writes:

I'm a huge fan of the show and your Great Courses series. I'm writing you because I wanted your take on all the controversy and conspiracy surrounding Hillary Clinton's health.

DG: Oh god!

Recently, Martin Shkreli said he believed she had Parkinson's disease. There was a news story on Hannity about her health and needing assistance up stairs. There is the video of her having what appears to be a small seizure when talking to reporters.

All right, and then he goes on a little more detail. But basically, this is all filed under armchair diagnosis, right?

E: Yeah, right!

S: But Martin Shkreli – you guys remember who Martin Shkreli is.

DG: Oh yeah!

E: Oh yeah!

C: The biggest dumb-bag in the world?

E: Yeah, that's right!


S: Famous for being a scumbag.

DG: He's up there, definitely.

S: But anyway, yeah. So, he bought a company that was selling a drug for a rare disease for like, eight dollars a pill, and decided to increase the price to like, seven hundred dollars a pill or something, and then tried to justify it as, “Oh, this is gonna fund research, and we're gonna cure diseases,” and whatever. No one bought it.

So, Shkreli puts out a video – like, he should just be laying low, this guy, right? He's already had his fifteen minutes of scumbag fame.

DG: He's shameless.

B: Infamy.

S: Yeah. In the video – so, Martin Shkreli, if you haven't guessed, he's the dumbest guy of the week. (Rogues laugh) In the video, he says that he's looked at these videos of Hillary Clinton, and because he's been involved in pharmaceutical research, right? Like this guy is a scientist himself.

DG: Would he like to show me his neurology board certification?

S: Yeah

C: Yeah (laughs)

E: No, no, no, no, no.

S: “No, I'm not a neurologist; I'm not a doctor; but, hey, they don't call me 'Pharma Bro' for nothing. (Rogues laugh) I know what I'm talking about.” Then he builds a case that Hillary Clinton has Parkinson's disease because of this one video where she stumbles, and this other video where ... I mean, it's kind of a goofy video where she's making an exaggerated startle response to a reporter asking a question, I think it was about Elizabeth Warren or something; and she's feigning an exaggerated reaction. Like, “What are you saying?!” You know, and it looks kind of goofy. But he's saying that this is dystonia.

C: What?

S: That movement was dystonia, and her tripping was a Parkinsonian freeze. So, Martin Shkreli has absolutely no effing idea what he's talking about.

E: Doesn't stop him from talking!

(Cara laughs)

S: Yeah, not only should you not make armchair diagnoses, you especially shouldn't do it if you have no expertise whatsoever. And being a scumbag for this pharmaceutical industry doesn't make you an expert in anything.

E: Except scumbaggery.

DG: And of course, what I like to consider perhaps the dumbest pundit in this world, Shawn Hannity, ate it up.

S: Of course!

E: Well, yeah, well, come on.

S: So ...

E: Negative Hillary, must be good. That's Shawn.

S: Movement disorders are one of those things that you can diagnose from a video. I never make diagnoses online or whatever, but with things like this that are in the public domain, I can comment on Shkreli's comment about this. So, what she was doing in that video when she was moving her head was not dystonia, it was not Parkinson's disease, it wasn't a seizure, it was clearly voluntary, it was nothing neurological. That was voluntary.

You know, Parkinson's disease is not something you can hide. It is something that's very visual. That's what we call an across-the-room diagnosis. I could get a glance at somebody and know that they have Parkinson's disease. It affects the way your face looks; it affects the way you talk; it affects the way you walk; it affects the way you move; and even with medication, you could obviously improve the symptoms, especially in the early stages, with medication; but never to the point where you can escape diagnosis.

You know, how many thousands of hours has Hillary Clinton been in the public with cameras and video cameras on her ...

DG: Right

S: over the last year ...

C: Yeah ...

S: or more.

C: she doesn't control that.

S: There's no way!

C: Michael J. Fox ...

S: Yeah

C: in the early days, like, he was on set. They chose which clips to use, ...

S: Yes.

C: which takes to use.

S: Exactly. They would get little thirty-second clips of him.

C: Yeah. You can't do that ...

S: Yeah

C: when you're in the public eye constantly.

S: No, absolutely not. So he's talking out his ass about this. Really, it's embarrassing what he's saying. While he's simultaneously trying to convince you that he knows what he's talking about, what he's saying is utterly naive. It's just, don't think you have clinical expertise because you have non-clinical expertise. It's totally different!

So he got that completely wrong, and then of course now there's this meme going around that Hillary Clinton is having seizures, and that video is the main evidence for it.

E: Oh great.

DG: Yeah.

S: It's not a seizure, just stop it. You don't know what you're talking about. I know, David, you commented on this too. I just don't think, I think people are a little bit too free with throwing around clinical diagnoses like ...

DG: Even for Donald Trump! In fairness, it makes me very uneasy to hear all of these pundits speculating about Trump's mental health, you know?

S: Yeah, exactly.

DG: I despise Trump pretty much as much as almost anyone, but it makes me uncomfortable to hear people say that stuff. Stop it!

S: Yeah, just don't make a clinical diagnosis.

E: Right.

S: You don't know what you're talking about.

C: Yeah, and I think the funny thing is that it's scare-mongering on one side of the aisle – this is common in election years, especially when you can attempt to use somebody's age against them.

E: Oh sure, absolutely.

C: And Hillary Clinton is not a spring chicken.

S: Yeah!

C: You know, she's seventy years old, but so's Donald Trump!

DG: Right! They're the same age! They're within a year.

S: But it's just now a political tactic. You're right, David, that the pundits are like, “Oh, this is a meme now! Hillary's sick! That's how we're gonna get her. We're gonna build this case ...”

E: Right

S: “that Hillary's not medically fit to be President.”

E: And start cherry-picking images or things to fit that narrative.

S: Yes, exactly. They're just confirmation biases at that point.

DG: I mean, Trump himself has even been saying this too.

E: Oh sure.

S: Yes! Absolutely.

E: Yeah, why not.

B: It's screwy.

S: You could invent any ...

C: Why not?

S: meme that Trump has dementia, and, “Ah! Let's build a case for that!” You know what I mean? Whatever. I'm sure you could do that if somebody wanted to do that. You could cherry-pick videos and everyone's gonna have a brain fart thousands of hours on the campaign trail, or use the wrong word, or whatever. You guys remember back to – Cara, you're too young for this – but President Ford?

DG: Oh yeah!

E: And him falling?

S: And he got a reputation for being clumsy? And then of course that's it! Every time the guy stumbled or tripped it reinforced the narrative that he was clumsy.

DG: I mean, he had old football injuries as I recall, that occasionally acted up.

S: But I don't even know that there's anything to it. I mean, everyone trips!

DG: No, I know!

C: Yeah, that's true.

S: If you're being video-taped for thousands of hours, that's a lot of raw material. You could build any narrative out of it.

E: I'm sure you could. That's exactly right.

S: How many times did you just stumble or trip on your every-day life? All the time! Doesn't mean a thing!

B: Yeah, I remember one specific scenario, Steve, where he did trip, and he had a fall. But actually, if you looked in slow motion, they said, “Look it: He actually made some amazing saves while he was falling.” (Rogues laugh) It could have been so much worse! And he was actually fairly adroit, you know?

S: Yeah.

(Commercial at 1:07:12)

Science or Fiction (1:08:47)[edit]


(Science or Fiction music)
It's time for Science or Fiction

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:24:57)[edit]

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.

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