Expectations: Stories about surprising discoveries

This week, we're presenting stories about what happens when our expectations don't match up with reality.

Part 1: Married neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik are surprised by what they learn when they investigate deception at a psychic convention.

Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik are award-winning neuroscientists and professors at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center. They are best known for their studies on perception, illusions, and attentional misdirection in stage magic. They produce the annual Best Illusion of the Year Contest, now in its 13th edition, and are the authors of the international bestseller Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. Their new book, Champions of Illusion: The Science Behind Mind-Boggling Images and Mystifying Brain Puzzles, comes out October 24th.    

Part 2: While working in the South Sudan, OB-GYN Africa Stewart must wait for an elder's permission before treating a pregnant woman gored by a bull.

Dr. Africa Stewart graduated with honors from Johns Hopkins University in 1995 with a BA in psychology and mathematical science. She then attended Drexel University Medical School in Philadelphia. In 1999 she completed a Masters of Business Administration with a concentration in Strategic Planning from the University of Pittsburgh's Katz School of Business. She then returned to Philadelphia to finish her medical training at Drexel. In 2000 she received a Doctorate in Medicine and began Obstetrics and Gynecology residency at Hahnemann University Hospital. Her career with MSF began in Sudan in June 2011. Dr. Stewart has completed 4 surgical field missions and served as a guide for the Forced From Home exhibit in 2016. She continues to support women's health care locally and abroad with an emphasis on education and prevention.



Episode Transcript

Part 1: Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik

Stephen Macknik:  A few years ago, we were writing our book about the neuroscience magic and how magic tricks work in the brain.  We realized that we were very fascinated in the concept of psychics.  Were psychics using the same kinds of techniques as magicians to actually get their customers to think they were actually reading their minds? 

Susana Martinez-Conde:  Something that you need to understand about us is that as neuroscientists studying magic and illusions, we are hardcore skeptics.  We didn’t understand how it’s possible for psychics to fool their customers into believing that they're witnessing actual supernatural feeds so we had to go there and see with our own eyes how it’s done.

Stephen Macknik:  So we registered at a psychic fair in Sedona, Arizona.  Sedona, to paranormal believers, is one of the fourteen power points of the earth and it can ground the vibrational frequencies from extraterrestrial sources so it was the perfect location for our little experiment.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  We didn’t know what may be in store for us so we had to do some advance preparations.  Through my reading, I learned that the psychic fair there may be something on psychometry, which is not quite scientific as it sounds.  Basically, you bring an item with you that you feel specially connected to and psychics will provide a reading of that object’s history and significance. 

After some consideration, I settle on a little metal toy soldier that I found inside of a chocolate Kinder egg as a child in the 1980s. 

Stephen Macknik:  I dug through our closets and pulled out some tie-dyed t-shirts that were super groovy and far-out, man, so we could blend in. 

Susana Martinez-Conde:  And with that we were good to go. 

Stephen Macknik:  So we drive up to Sedona.  We lived in Phoenix at the time.  We show up at Sedona to a resort hotel ballroom, which wasn’t exactly the drumming circle in the desert we had imagined.  But inside was basically set up like every other conference we’d ever been to.  There were vendors around the room, there were lines of chairs, and that’s where the similarity started to break because the vendors were selling things like potions and ointments that could cure your cancers and your wounds.  And you could get a psychic massage that would remove the negative frequencies from your body. 

So we realized that when we looked around, though, that it wasn’t exactly the hippy-dippy groovy set that we were expecting with free love and all of that.  It was actually a bunch of older folks that could have fit in at a mall anywhere in the U.S.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  We were literally the only two people in tie-dye inside.

Stephen Macknik:  Okay, so I had imagined incense-filled tents and marijuana clouds and all sorts of things like that and what we ended up with was something all completely different because my attempts at camouflage completely failed. 

Susana Martinez-Conde:  We decided to split ways so we wouldn’t stand out so much.

Stephen Macknik:  I went immediately to a table, a vendor who was selling psychic pictures.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  And I decided to go and get some psychic advice on whether I should go back to school or remain a stay-at-home mom which I've actually never been.  But I created this character, a different person from who I am in reality because I was partly curious to see whether the psychics might see through the façade. 

The first couple of psychics that I went to advised that I went back to school but I figured that they were following very closely my body language and facial expressions so when I nodded and smiled they stayed the course, but if I frowned or acted confused they will reverse themselves.  They were basically telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. 

Stephen Macknik:  I went to a table run by this guy named Elvis.  He had a box with a Polaroid camera in it and inside the box was also a light source and a spinning color wheel.  He closed the box up and he took my picture with it and I got this Polaroid and I was watching it develop.  It developed into my face and it was surrounded by this beautiful rainbow color aura with splotches of color all around.  Elvis explained to me that those splotches of color were my guardian angels and the energy I was giving off.  Then he asked me for $33.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  When the third psychic told me that she saw success in my future, I tried my best passive expression so she quickly told me that she didn’t mean professional success as such but successful, meaningful personal relationships.  She advised that I stay home with the kids. 

So I had proven my point but it didn’t feel quite as satisfying as I had envisioned.  Throughout this whole experience, I had started to have the irrational, bizarre feeling that I was being a little unfair to the psychics.

Stephen Macknik:  I headed to another table filled with all sorts of sundry items, flashlights and laser pointers, pendants, and these I was told had been quantum accelerated with crystals.  He also had these bracelets and it was explained that inside it was a material that would actually polarize and align all the protons in my body which, of course, if it was true, would turn me into a magnet.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  I was feeling a bit out of sorts after my psychic readings so I decided to go check on Steve.

Stephen Macknik:  I was so relieved when Susana showed up because I was getting kind of filled up to the brim with the pseudoscience.  So I explained to Susana that the gentleman at the quantum acceleration table had just explained to me that he had taken this quantum-accelerated laser pointer and used it to remove the cysts from his wife’s breasts.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  I literally could not think of any suitable reply to such a statement.  All I managed to do was turn around 180 degrees and convulse in silent laughter.

Stephen Macknik:  She literally ran away.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  It was time to get my first psychometry reading on my little soldier but I was a bit concerned that no psychic would take exercise seriously if I told them that I found the soldier inside of a chocolate egg.  Instead I said that I had found this object lodged between two planks of wood at my old rental apartment in Boston and that I felt a special connection to it. 

Stephen Macknik:  So I was starting to feel a little depressed.  We were writing this book on magic, we were working with magicians, we were going to Las Vegas and visiting them at their shows in casinos on The Strip and one of the things we learned about these casinos is that the gamblers there, they're not all the happy-go-lucky gambling crowd you might expect.  That many of them actually were kind of worried and desperate to win.  That you realize you are standing next to somebody who might be having the very worst day of their life at any given time.  So we realized that the psychic fear that it was a similar feeling that these people were having, feeling frantic and desperate themselves.  This kind of led us to wonder what was it that they were feeling and why was it they were feeling this way.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  I handed the toy soldier for the first psychometric reading and waited to hear the verdict.  The psychic told me that the reason I felt this strong connection to the soldier was because this soldier represented me in a prior life. 

“It’s you back when you were Caesar,” she told me.  Which frankly made me feel pretty good, although I didn’t believe a word of it.  But throughout this experience, I found myself bizarrely of two minds.  Intentionally skeptical as is my nature but also wanting to know more. 

Then the psychic said, “Hold on.  Not Caesar himself but one of his most trusted generals.”  Which I still thought sounded pretty impressive.  Until she said, “Wait a minute.  Who was Caesar again?  Was he some sort of king?”

Stephen Macknik:  For the record, the soldier is a 1760s British infantryman with a musket on his shoulder. 

Susana Martinez-Conde:  The next psychic that I went to told me that this toy soldier was not an actual toy but a chess piece from the 1940s that used to belong to this old gentleman.  And that the reason that I felt connected to it was because the soldier was from the same precise German town where I had lived my prior life as a scullery maid.

Stephen Macknik:  In her current life, it may be true that I haven't quite been able to let go of that whole scullery maid thing.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  I don't even know what a scullery maid is.  But the psychic did say that my life as a scullery maid had been mostly joyful.  I had good friends and a husband who loved me.  But I had had this one sorrow and it’s that even though I have very much wanted to have children, I never got to have any. 

“That’s so sad,” I told the psychic. 

I sort of left my face unguarded for a second or two because she asked me, “Is there something that you're struggling with in this life?” 

And I said, “No.  I have two little boys.”  But I didn’t mention the two pregnancy losses between my first and my second child and I realized right then and there what a comfort it would have been a few years prior to believe in the concept of this one life out of the many lives that came before and just as many lives that will come right after. 

Stephen Macknik:  So the attendees of this conference were clinging to the wispiest of false evidence.  They were the ultimate consumers of false hope.  That they were hoping that someone with authority would tell them that their cancer would go away, that their family and friends in the military would come home safe, that they would be reincarnated next time with a better life.  Maybe they’d go from being a scullery maid to one of Caesar’s generals. 

The psychics there, we realized, were in fact using the magic tricks that we thought they were using but they were really taking advantage of these people to tell them what they wanted to hear.  They were… how should I put this?

Susana Martinez-Conde:  They were using their cognitive failures to their advantage.  For one, I myself as a staunch skeptic was startled to find myself in a couple of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moments.  I realized that believing can be much easier than disbelieving and feel a whole lot better.  That’s both the beauty and the danger of the stories that we tell ourselves.

Stephen Macknik:  Exactly.  Of course it was all an illusion.  As we drove home, we were in a thoughtful mood.  We were thinking about how the psychics were in fact using the magic tricks that we had imagined when we drove up there in the first place and we remain just as skeptical of psychic phenomena as when we arrived.  But we also felt a lot more sympathy for our fellow attendees at the conference that, in fact, we realized that they brought an important component to the psychic phenomenon which is that they bring to the table part of the illusion which is the need to believe.  Thank you.

Susana Martinez-Conde:  Thank you.


Part 2: Africa Stewart

So I have a story.  It’s full of love and loss and magic and blood and guts and all of those things but I can’t tell it at you.  I need to tell it to you.  So if you would please, an imaginary cup full of your favorite thing, if you would have a sip.  Now, I can tell you a story.

The beginning.  Okay.  We heard the commotion; we heard it before they called.  It’s a radio system so it’s, “Maternity to OT, Maternity to OT, please send doctor to Maternity.  Repeat.  Please send a doctor to Maternity.” 

I knew it wasn’t going to be good.  So I go out of the OR and I see her blood on the ground and I know it’s not good.  But I was taught to run at it, so I run.  I follow it.  I hadn’t been there long, but I got the feeling it’s time to run. 

Mind you, I’m an obstetrician so blood on the ground, wailing in the distance, it’s part of the job.  But this wasn’t a day at the office.  This was my first mission with Doctors Without Borders.  I left my private practice when my baby girl and my oldest… my baby girl was born.  My oldest was adopted.  And the world was on fire.  I had a teenager all of a sudden and a newborn and a beautiful baby boy stuck in the middle. 

And I went.  They called and I went.  A houseful of kids, a couple gallons of breast milk left in the freezer, I went to Sudan.  This was the spring of 2011, so it’s right before south was scheduled to secede from the north.  So South Sudan wasn’t a country yet. 

I went because they didn’t know what was going to happen.  Nobody did.  A new international border changes everything.  We thought there would drama and killings, but it turned out to be mommies and their kids.  Because now they had to figure out which side of the line they were going to live on and the hospital is on the other side. 

So this is a little village east of Darfur.  They called on Friday.  I texted my husband, “Babe, MSF called.  Can I go to Sudan?” 

He texts me back, “Yo.  Autocorrect is bugging.  What’s up?” 

“No, no, no.  I want to go to Sudan.”  And that was Friday, I left on Thursday. 

The village, if you're familiar with the area, Aweil is halfway between Wau and Nyala.  If you're not familiar, it’s the middle of ever-loving nowhere.  It’s the middle of nowhere.  There's not another surgeon for a thousand miles in a circle.  There's nobody.  So I went because there was nobody. 

It’s first mission so everything is new and scary and exciting and wonderful, but now I have a job to do because women walk for days to get to the hospital so a delay in timing is crucial.  It changes everything. 

So I am out of breath, heart racing when I get to maternity.  There's a patient on the cot, there's a bunch of people around her, I don't know who’s who but there's a lot happening.  There's anxiety and urgency. 

But I don't speak the language.  I only know three people in the whole country, and I just met them.  I've only been here a week.  But I see one of the translators that I worked with before and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on.  She's bloody, she's got a bloody thing and her face is so swollen.

But this language has clicks in it.  I mean, I can make my way.  I can say push, don’t push, mommy, sorry, congratulations in a lot of languages, in a lot of dialects.  It’s part of the job.  But this language has clicks in it. 

So the translator, “The bulla strucka.” 

And I say, “Oh, I don't know what that is.”  I know a lot of things.  That ain’t one of them. 

“The bulla strucka!” 

So I look at the patient, because that’s my natural reaction.  I’m used to being able to talk to my patient.  Okay.  I’m going to work with him, I'll work with you. 

He says, “You know this one.”  And he does like a milking motion with his hands. 

I say, “Yes!” 

He says, “No.  Not this one.  I speak now of the man-cow.”  And he does the devil horns over his head.  “He has struck her.” 

I’m like, “Is he trying to tell me that she’d been gored by a damn bull?”  And that’s exactly what I said aloud, like no dignified Dr. Stewart filter. 

“Are you trying to tell me she got gored by a damn bull?” 

Gored.  That’s the word.  So he turns to the family and he says something to them.  He does the devil horns again and he lunges at them.  And they all click.  It’s a chorus of clicks.  That’s the word that we were missing.  That’s the word that he never learned on television when he was learning English.  Gored by the man-cow. 

All right.  Okay.  Now, as you can imagine, for me this is all hands on deck, man your battle stations, batten down the hatches.  Goddamn, we’re going to the OR.  It’s about to get serious. 

“She… are you…,” and the patient just quietly sort of moves her garments up.  She has a twenty-week baby bump and a hole in her.  A big bleeding hole in her. 

So in my mind I've just turned into Captain Dr. Africa Stewart.  Dammit.  I've got on a sparkly onesie, there's a little fan gently blowing my hair like Beyonce, a cape unfurls.  “We’re going to the OR!” 

That’s how it is in my mind.  Everyone has dreams.  So me and my Beyonce fan, we’re going to the OR. 

OR for me is home.  It’s where I grew up.  My mom was a surgical tech almost forty-five years so when our sitter failed, when school was closed, those administrative days that don’t make any sense, I went to the OR.  This was some time ago.  This was before you had to fill out a waiver to take your kid to work.  It wasn’t like that. 

The Doctors’ Lounge was for men, the Nurses’ Lounge was for women, and both lounges had ashtrays.  Nobody thought it was weird for a little girl to be sitting in a cloud of secondhand smoke for hours.  Nobody.  School’s out.  It’s okay. 

So this is where I feel most comfortable.  This is where I feel like me.  We’re going to the OR. 

Except nobody is moving.  Nobody is running around.  There's nothing STAT, you know.  Nothing is happening. 

I’m like, “Oh, the translator is not good at what he's supposed to be doing,” because I’m expecting when you step on an anthill, like we should be running around.  But they’re not because they know something that I don't know. 

And I’m asking the translator, I’m making sure that he understands what I’m trying to say because nobody is doing nothing.  But they can’t because they know that, here, families are in multi-generational homes.  The decision maker is the oldest person in your family and that’s just the way it is. 

Culture is weird that way.  It’s hard to tell when you're in but it’s obvious when you're out.  I was raised on Women’s Rights.  Come get it.  Patient says it’s her body and we can get down if we want to, but that’s not how it works here. 

She understands that she's got a hole in her and I can fix it whenever she is ready and I can’t vouch for either of you while we wait.  And I hate telling people that because I feel like that’s the biggest card I got.  If she don’t bite, I have to do the things that OBs have to do sometimes. 

But she understands completely.  I’m the one who doesn’t understand.  She would rather lose her baby and her own life than disrespect the thing that she built her whole self on, that love and the support that you can’t get in the middle of a civil war.  This is how it is here.  That’s why nobody understands that I’m wearing a sparkly damn onesie and I’m trying to get to the OR.  So we wait. 

I'll admit, I asked every translator in that building just to make sure that she understands what I understand.  And she was as pleasant as pie each and every time.  She said, “No, we wait.”  And we did. 

And then comes The One, the one that we’re waiting for, the one that can make the decision and do the thing.  Mind you, this part of the world has a group of people that are very, very tall and very, very dark skinned.  So when I tell you and I've been black all my life and I have never, ever seen that shade of black.  I've seen it with like a blue undertone and I've seen it with like a purply undertone, but I shit you not.  Her undertone is magic.  I don't know what that is. 

White hair and you know the duck that tall people do in order to enter a room?  So the hospital was built by westerners.  They call them Khawaja, people who aren’t from here.  It’s comical to them that the doors are so short and wide.  Everyone else is not built that way.  So The One has to duck in order to come into Labor and Delivery. 

I've never seen anybody that old duck to enter a room.  I'd gotten used to my staff.  They're young, they're agile, but everybody is at least six-feet tall.  So getting used to a 6’4” pregnant lady just waddling by, just handling it it’s like this is like giraffes giving birth everywhere.  It’s beautiful and entirely foreign to me. 

But the thing, I've never seen this shade of black.  I've never seen hair, never seen wrinkles so beautiful.  Like the assemblages, it’s just packages I've never seen.  And it had never occurred to me that the one we were waiting on was a woman.  Dammit, I’m ashamed to tell you but it never crossed my mind until she ducked into Labor and Delivery. 

Regal would be… and it had purple that you wouldn’t believe.  But it was regal-ish, fragile, and proud, if that word isn’t offensive to her. 

Anywho, she looked at me, she looked at my staff, she says something to the translator and the translator asks me, “She wants to know if you will do the cutting.” 

And I sort of nodded and bowed.  I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do.  She clicked.  Just once.  And then my emergency started.  One click.  [clicks]

Translator gets out an ink pad because, for the most part, Sudanese are subsistence farmers, cattleperson.  The surgical consent form is in French or English.  So what we do is we fingerprint her.  So this regal creature signed my surgical consent form with her fingerprint and then we went to the OR. 

Mom and baby did okay.  The horn got through her abdominal wall but kind of grazed the top of her womb.  The baby was fine.  Major organs and whatnot were manageable, nothing a kid who was raised in the smoky OR couldn’t handle, right? 

But as I’m getting of a certain season, getting closer to being one of The Ones, I look back.  I only saw her once more and this was the wee hours of the next day.  She was in the bed with my patient, spooning her.  The staff said that she stayed up until the patient fell asleep.  She hummed to her.  And by the time I finished the rest of my morning rounds, The One was gone.  The patient did well.  I never saw The One again. 

But as I look forward to being a grandmother, of being the oldest one in my clan, I’m not sure if I’m ready.  I’m not sure if I’m made of magic yet.  But I had this richness, this fullness of experience. 

When we go past like a pasture, my kids moo.  They moo at the cows every time, but I look for the man-cow.  For no other reason than I’m curious to set eyes on ‘the beast that strucka’.  And it makes me know the contrast and the reflection that comes with it. 

Every time I tell this story to someone, there's always the man-cow, there's always the patient, there's always me in some form or another with a fan.  Wait a second.  It won’t be uncomfortable.  See?  But I think about myself as a grandmother.  I think of my grandmothers who are long passed.  And I look back and I remember neither one of them ever wore makeup.  And I’m pretty sure because it’s impossible.  You cannot find a lightweight foundation if your undertone is magic.  You know what I mean?  [clicks]