Category: Personal Stories

I was skeptical before I ever knew there was such a thing as skepticism. I haven’t always been right – far from it in fact –  but I have always tried to look for truth wherever that took me.

My earliest memory is my first experiment. I can’t have been older than three and my parents had warned me not to ring the front doorbell because it annoyed my poor dog. Not satisfied with this statement I decided to drag a garden chair to our front door. The journey was only two or three metres but at the time it felt nearer two miles. I then bravely stood on the chair and rang the doorbell erupting into laughter when my dog let out a howl of dissatisfaction at the sound. I had successfully tested my hypothesis. I’m sure I later successfully replicated the experiment but I have no memory of this.

Not my childhood dog (RIP) but still very cute.

From the ages of about five to nine, whenever I asked my parents if I could add pepper to my meal I was told: “no you can’t have it, it’s not good for you.” When pressed they explained that it’s because the peppercorns stay in your stomach for seven years.

Where’s the pepper meant to stay?

Now I don’t know about you but as a child seven years sounds like an eternity. I’m not sure I even grasped how long that was but I thought the claim was fishy. How would the pepper stay inside me? How would my body even know what was pepper and what wasn’t? Wouldn’t the build-up of pepper block everything else at some point? My parents couldn’t answer all the questions I had and perhaps I didn’t even ask all of them out loud.

When I finally Googled the peppercorn claim in my early teens it turned out to be false just as I had predicted. Pepper does not stay in your intestine for seven years. In fact, black pepper may even aid digestion.  I also learned that the body does, in fact, retain some substances such as heavy metals and that our digestive system is actually pretty ‘clever’ – clever enough to tell different substances from each other.  Of course, to be scientifically accurate it’s not the digestive itself per se but the enzymes and cell membranes and all that but let’s not get bogged down with those details right now. Let’s look at what I learned.

Through finding out the truth about pepper I learned that trusting those with authority blindly isn’t always a good idea – especially if they haven’t done their own research.  Asking simple questions like “does this sound plausible?” or “is this even possible?” are vital and can help avoid many later problems.  Equally, through the doorbell experiment with my poor pup,  I learned that sometimes people with more experience are actually right and that I shouldn’t just dismiss their claims without consideration. They’re not just being controlled by Big Dog, (was that subtle enough?).

These early experiences were just some of the events that showed me the use and the beauty of skepticism. Not only did I end up believing something closer to reality I also learnt new information and for me, that’s one of the wonderful things about skepticism –  even if you’re wrong you learn something new.

One of my pictures from QEDcon 2017

With skepticism, you can learn about all manner of topics. Just last month at QEDcon in Manchester I learned how to fold a t-shirt in less than 5 seconds, explored some of my own and others cognitive biases and heard all about the cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster among much else. Skepticism has helped me see where I’m wrong and where I can and should do better. Skepticism is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to be embraced, enjoyed and shared.

Personal Stories Skepticism

Jordan Raskopoulos is a natural born performer. For most people performing on stage in front of thousands is a terrifying prospect. Not so for Raskopoulos. A talented comedian and singer she’s in her element on stage. She also lives with high functioning anxiety.

In a funny and enlightening TEDx talk, she tells her story and it’s one I’m all too familiar with.

As Raskopoulos tells us, people ask “how on earth can you have a problem with anxiety Jordon when you are so confident on stage.” Her response is “well the problem is I am only confident on stage. Off it, I’m a timid, mumbly wreck.”

She is happiest in front of an audience but is terrified of social interaction. In her words “I don’t get stage fright, I get life fright.” Like me, she fears chatty taxi drivers and hairdressers. She feels anxious if she turns up to a party “too early or too late or overdressed or underdressed or if I don’t see anybody I know.” These are all things I can relate to.

Luckily my anxiety isn’t quite at the same level as hers but I also experience this sort of context dependent anxiety. She tells us one of her friends calls people like us “shy/loud” because we’re fine in front of an audience just not talking to people in other situations.

When I’m in front of people performing a role I am fine. This explains why my anxiety more or less vanishes when I’m at work, performing magic on stage or at a party, or speaking to lecturers (‘playing’ the role of a student).

Take me away from an audience or strip me of my role and I spend every second looking for an escape. I can do small talk and socialising but only for a couple minutes. Getting trapped in a conversation about my plans for the weekend not only bores me but also make me feel claustrophobic.

As Raskopoulos notes this tendency to seek escape can be mistaken for arrogance but it’s not. In the moment, as the noose of interaction draws ever tighter and tighter, I suffocate. I need to escape, to leave the situation and unwind. It’s not that I don’t like a person or am trying to be rude. Throughout our conversation, my body is screaming at me “we don’t want to be here. WE DON’T WANT TO BE HERE. THIS IS SCARY FOR US.”

I’m also very introverted and need to take time to recharge after social interactions. At parties or when visiting people, I’ll often disappear for minutes while I go for a walk or speak to one other person so I can refocus and recentre.

Of course, logically, removed from social situations I can say that I am overreacting. That iceberg I see in the distance ready to sink the conversation is only a mirage. It’s wrong for me to think that I’ll somehow fail as a person if I mess up in conversation. But that’s the thing about our brains – they were not built to let logic rule, they were built to keep us alive.

Some (Probably) Butchered Science

Most people are familiar with the phrase “fight or flight” coined in 1915 by Walter Bradford Cannon but many don’t know that there’s also a third response. This response is to freeze. From deer caught in the headlights to prey confronting predators,  organisms in the natural world show a propensity for freezing in place when scared or anxious. Former FBI agent and author Joe Navarro explains in What Every Body is Saying that shoplifters do it too. In their anxiety to not be detected many shoplifters automatically freeze their movements ironically making them more visible to the trained eye. Victims of sexual assault and others experiencing traumatic events also sometimes show a freeze response.

Somewhere along the line, my brain has decided that it will respond to social interactions as if I were confronting a tiger or shoplifting which is unhelpful, to say the least.

It’s important to note that fight, flight or freeze responses are modified during social interactions as a blog post by Kylie Murrin on Joyable notes. Murrin explains that a fight response may cause a person to snap at people while anxious. Meanwhile, a flight response may cause a person to go hide in a bathroom as Raskopoulos admits to sometimes doing. Finally, a freeze response can present as a person clamming up or blanking out while in a stressful situation.

My freeze response is also visible when I’m confronted with a lot of tasks. Like Raskopoulos when I face them: “I worry, I procrastinate and I do nothing at all.”

So why do us shy/louds do fine when performing on stage but freeze in social situations or procrastinate when given a long list of tasks? For Raskopoulos and myself, it’s because of perceived control. It’s why I’ve been doing magic for a few years now. I’m confident and happy when I’m performing. When we’re on stage or performing we know how things will play out. We’re in control and that makes all the difference.

Mental Health Personal Stories

I currently have 10 blog posts sitting in draft. Some require only minimal work to be ready to publish while others will require hours of work.

I’m an ideas person but I’m bad at follow through.

I write posts in bursts of energy.

The final form only comes together at the very end and paragraphs have a tendency to

shift about.


Things aren’t always tidy;.. or speled rite.

I don’t know why I can’t finish posts. Maybe it’s my fear of failure. Maybe it’s my fear of being judged or maybe it’s just plain laziness and lack of motivation. But it is a problem.

I wish I finished more pos…

Personal Stories Productivity and Procrastination