Saturday, 19 December 2009

Doctrine of Signatures

Level 3 students are working on a colour project at the moment using resin and acrylic. Whilst talking to one of our students (E L) about a piece she was making – I remarked that her samples looked very similar to microscopic images of cancer cells specifically bowel cancer that I was exploring for new jewellery. She joked about how the resin looks like cancer and can also cause cancer if too much of it is inhaled. This conversation reminded me of how we often make connections between things that resemble each other.

There is a long history of this kind of reasoning particularly in herbal medicine. For example in medieval times a particular plant was believed to cure disorders of the blood because its roots were red and crimson like blood hence its name bloodroot. Many plant names are derived from this approach and include the suffix wort -meaning root- in their name for example lungwort, liverwort, toothwort etc. The belief that a plants appearance is directly related to its medicinal use is called the Doctrine of Signatures and demonstrates the unity that was perceived in nature.

The doctrine of signatures is considered to be superstition, as there would appear to be no evidence that plant signatures ever led to the discovery of medicinal properties - any positive results being coincidence. I suspect that any visual connection between resin and cancer imagery is also a coincidence. Despite this are there any advantages in making connections between things that resemble each other? I certainly feel that this is one of the fundamental ways in which we create meaning and that this is something we shouldn’t loose.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Superstitious Beliefs and Gender

Are you superstitious? If you are it should be confirmed by your finger length. New research published in the Journal Personality and Individual Differences indicates that "higher feminized" digit ratio in men correlated with stronger paranormal and superstitious beliefs, "even when controlled for age, education, adult height and weight, and birth length and weight." "Shorter feminized" digit ratios in women also correlated with a greater likelihood of superstitious beliefs, as did a woman's lighter weight at birth. For both sexes, shorter body length at birth was associated with later beliefs in superstitions and the paranormal. Author Martin Voracek's study participants consisted of 1,118 Austrian men and women from diverse backgrounds. They ranged in age from 17 to 72.

The study participants were evaluated on their beliefs in both negative and positive superstitions. The negative superstitions included walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror and associating the number 13 with misfortune. The positive ones were crossing fingers, touching wood and carrying lucky charms.

Voracek then collected data on each participant's weight and length at birth, as well as their present age, education, adult height and weight. He additionally measured the lengths of the test subjects' ring, middle and index fingers. Prior research had determined that relative finger length, also known as digit ratio, can be a marker for individual differences affected by hormones. Men tend to have ring fingers that are slightly longer than their index fingers. In women, these fingers are usually about the same length, or the index digit is slightly longer (as in my hand - see above photo). In some cases, however, women exhibit a digit ratio more associated with men, while men may exhibit the ratio associated more with women.

The findings help to support the conclusions of Kia Aarnio and Marjaana Lindeman, both University of Helsinki psychologists who have extensively studied the propensity for paranormal and superstitious beliefs. They found that women are much more likely to have such beliefs, which the researchers attribute to "higher intuitiveness and lower analytical thinking."

Based on the recent study, it now appears that men born with at least one feminine-associated characteristic may have greater intuitiveness as well, possibly explaining why these men, like some women, are more inclined to hold paranormal and superstitious beliefs. Is this your experience?


The association between jewellery and cultural perceptions of disease is evident in the earliest civilizations: particular stones have long been associated with certain healing properties, and charms and amulets are believed to ward off evil spirits associated with illness and disease. Turquoise is an interesting stone to discuss in this context. On Charms of Light a UK based site for healing with energy, light, love and beauty, Turquoise is described as follows;

Turquoise is a mineral that is a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminium.

Turquoise is a purification stone. It is excellent for depression and exhaustion, it also has the power to prevent panic attacks. Turquoise aids in the absorption of nutrients, enhances the immune system, stimulates the regeneration of tissue, and heals the whole body. It contains anti-inflammatory and detoxifying effects, and alleviates cramps and pain. Turquoise purifies lungs, soothes and clears sore throats, and heals the eyes, including cataracts. It neutralises overacidity, benefits rheumatism, gout, stomach problems, and viral infections.

Another web site provides a historical perspective on some of the more negative associations of Turquoise. It suggests one superstition is that you should avoid wearing turquoise that belongs to a deceased person as it takes on the characteristics of the wearer. Europeans of the middle ages said that Turquoise would lose its color when the wearer contracted an illness and was a gauge of the general health of a person. The people of the Afghanistan, Persia, India, and Arabia thought that a Turquoise stone that changed color was an omen of illnesses or death. Arab writings from the 12th century warned that a pale stone meant polluted air or a change in the weather. Dipping Turquoise in water gave the water the ability to cure bladder ailments.

This suggests that Turquoise has both positive and negative associations in different cultures and in different historical periods. Is there something then in our relationship to Turquoise that determines whether there is a positive or negative association? Is it in our beliefs about that object? and the power of belief? How many people hold these beliefs today? Do you have stories of Turquoise jewellery and superstition that you could share with us?

Tempting Fate!

We are a jeweller, a scientist and a physician based at the University of Dundee who are interested in exploring through contemporary jewellery superstitious beliefs about disease. At the heart of the project is the question - Would you wear a piece of jewellery inspired by a cancer cell? Or would this be tempting fate?

Cell biology encompasses one of the most visually striking areas of scientific research and has long been a source of inspiration for artists and designers. However, our anecdotal experience indicates that images and objects which represent human disease (eg. cancer) are perceived as simultaneously beguiling and sinister, and are often attributed with a malignant energy. This suggests that the tension between the dominant scientific world view and superstitious cultural beliefs remains as strong as when the seventeenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume proposed that it was unreasonable to believe testimonies of alleged miraculous events.

We aim to use this blog to present our work at it progresses and explore the relationship between objects, superstition and disease with you. We hope that you will engage with us on these issues.