Saturday January 21, 2006
I seem to have opened up a whole new front of bad science by looking into the high end hi-fi industry: but that will have to wait for next week. “Scientists claimed yesterday that they have solved the mystery behind the success of Agatha Christie’s novels,” says the Telegraph. “Novelist Agatha Christie used words that invoked a chemical response in readers and made her books ‘literally unputdownable’, scientists have said,” according to the BBC.
What could this chemical response be? Who did these astonishing experiments? Over to the Sunday Times: “the study by neuro-linguists at the universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick shows that she peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. “Christie’s language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain,” said Dr Roland Kapferer, who co-ordinated the research. “The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.” ”
This important work was to be revealed in a documentary, The Agatha Christie Code, on ITV1, over Chsistmas. I watched it: nothing. They don’t mention the words “serotonin”, “endorphin”, or even the clumsy neophrasism “neurological opiates”, a single time. Not once. The closest they come is when some hypnotist bloke called Paul McKenna walks in and says: “I believe the main reason agatha christie is so successful is because of the pattern of addiction that she creates in her readers through brain chemistry.” Oh, and a self-help guru is introduced as “an expert in a new science of language, Neurolinguistic Programming” – which might surprise neuroscientists, linguists, and programmers – but he doesn’t say much.
In fact the sole substance of their research into the “science of Agatha Christie’s success”, was counting up how often she used different words in her books: it turns out that Christie used simple words, like “said” instead of “replied”, and this made her books a bit easier to read and, er, hypnotic. Fair enough.
But where did all these authoritative neuroscience quotes come from? Clearly I had to get hold of “project leader Dr Roland Kapferer PhD”. He was difficult to track down, as he is not a neuroscientist, but an “assistant producer” in TV, and writer of this show. I asked him, by now with a heavy heart: what was the evidence for his neuroscience heavy quotes, that appeared all over the newspapers?
His response was so extraordinary that I have reproduced it, in its entirety, for your amusement, below. I highly recommend reading it.
First he told me that this neuroscience stuff was a joke, and we should have all been media savvy enough to know that from the start. Read his quotes again. If they’ll let me, I’ll lend you the show on DVD, and you can decide for yourself how obvious the joke was.
Then he told me that the journalists writing about his program had misrepresented him. The Sunday Times article, in particular, “was not a particularly accurate report on what I said”. Ouch, tiger. Well, just to be absolutely clear, I’ve also posted his press release, for the show, in full, no misreporting possible, on badscience.net, for you to read yourself.
Amongst other guff, in black and white, as clear as day, this press release contains key phrases, such as: “higher than usual activity in the brain. These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.”
Then finally, Kapferer gets all philosophical on my ass. “Like Jerry Fodor I’m dubious about a lot of the popular excitement regarding fMRI and PET and it was partly my intention to lampoon the very idea of PET as a way of understanding human creativity.” Right. “This goes also for the discussion of seretonin [sic] and endorphins and all the stuff about “brain activity.” Mmm hmmm. “Following Paul Feyerabend I would argue that science knows no ‘bare facts.’ And no such clearly defined process as a ‘scientific method’. Even the definitions of “experiment”, “evidence” etc vary wildly.”
It’s the kind of email that leaves you thinking: did I order this? I asked for some reasonable evidence to support his outlandish, extensive, widely reported, authoritative and fantastical assertions about serotonin and Agatha Christie. None was forthcoming.
So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the public are confused about science, for the simple reason that the media is full of grandiose humanities graduates, acting as self-appointed experts and science communicators, who construct their own parody of what they think science is: and then, to compound their crime, they go on to critique science, as if their parody was the reality.
And did I mention that Christie’s book sales were slipping until rebranded by Chorion PLC; that the “research group” into her work was assembled specifically for the ITV program; that Chorion have recently relaunched her back catalogue; and ITV have signed a deal to double their order for Agatha Christie adaptations in the next year? Can we have some science on telly, please.
Here is the press release for the program:
(see if you can spot the bit where it’s obvious they were only joking).
Scientists crack the Agatha Christie code
Agatha Christie’s books may be literally addictive, claim scientists
LONDON. Monday, 19 December 2005
The mystery of the phenomenal
success of the world’s best-selling novelist, Agatha Christie, may
finally have been solved by a team of British scientists.
The results are revealed in The Agatha Christie Code, a new
documentary produced by 3DD Productions to air on ITV1 at 4pm,
Tuesday, 27 December.
A detailed computer analysis of Christie’s literary output undertaken
by linguistic experts from the University of Warwick, University of
Birmingham, London University and King’s College, London, has found a
clear pattern of recurring literary devices that stimulate higher than
usual activity in the brain.
These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and
endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure
The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing
According to the study, Christie repeatedly employs literary
techniques which at first glance appear deceptively simple but in fact
resemble many of the patterns used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a
cognitive science employed by hypnotherapists and psychologists which
is concerned with the importance of words in ordering thoughts and
This raises the possibility that the combinatorial structure of a
Christie novel creates physiochemical responses in the reader that
have the effect of causing people to want to seek them out over and
over again, thereby making Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.
The research may finally explain why Agatha Christie ranks as the
best-selling novelist of all time with an estimated two billion copies
of her books in print. Nearly 30 years after her death, Christie is
still as popular as ever, selling millions of books around the world
each year. It is often said that she is outsold only by the Bible and
Among the findings are the following revelations:
ï‚§ As Christie’s novels develop towards the plot dÃ©nouement, the
sentence structures reduce in complexity. The books become easier to
read as they go along, thereby increasing the reader’s levels of
excitement and stimulating the brain’s natural opiates.
ï‚§ Christie makes uncommon use of words and phrases in connecting
passages which at first glance may appear separate and distinct but
add up to convey a common message to the reader’s unconscious mind.
(For example, seemingly innocuous sentences such as “I’d rather die
than go swimming” and phrases like “grave mistake” and “good grief”
can often be found in the same passage, thus leading the reader to
feel the overwhelming presence of death. Christie’s use of such a
device reflects the notions of Embedded Commands and Phonological
Ambiguity used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, whereby readers’ minds
are promoted to think about certain actions, qualities or feelings
without those thoughts necessarily becoming conscious.)
ï‚§ The author’s frequent use of the dash (‘-‘) creates a faster paced
unreflective narrative. This type of narrative structure entices the
reader on and is similar to the long mesmerizing sentences employed by
hypnotherapists. Each sentence thus reaches across towards the next in
a way which spurs the reader on to keep reading and not to dwell on
the semantic possibilities of the previous one.
ï‚§ Christie deliberately makes use of a repetitive core vocabulary and
everyday English. These devices force readers to concentrate on the
plot and the clues rather than be distracted by clever wordplay.
Readers of Christie are seldom distracted by heavy use of adjectival
or adverbial phrases (the statistical count of these type of phrases
is proportionally far lower than any of contemporaries such as Dorothy
L. Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
Comment on the results, project leader, Dr Roland Kapferer PhD, said:
“It is extraordinary just how timeless and popular Agatha Christie’s
books remain. These initial findings indicate that there is a
mathematical formula that accounts for her phenomenal success. I am
convinced that our research has come one step closer to defining what
it means for a book to be unputdownable. Our next step is to seek to
replicate these experiments with other leading authors to discover
whether their writings cause similar neurological activity among
readers. Whether Christie herself was aware that her words contained
such powerful neural triggers is another matter for debate and may
well remain an enduring mystery in itself.”
Dr Pernilla Danielsson, Academic Director of the Centre for Corpus
Research at School of Humanities, University of Birmingham, said:
“The lack of variation in her words can mean that Christie is
perceived to be a poor writer, however one could also say that she is
limiting her vocabulary deliberately so that the reader concentrates
on the clues and the plot. By focusing on using common words, the
dialogue text became closer to actual conversational language. This is
something she develops throughout her career and we can see in her
later books that she was keen on fixed phrases like ‘more or less’ and
‘a day or two’ which are so common in spoken language.”
The Agatha Christie Code, ITV1 at 4pm, Tuesday, 27 December 2005
– ends –
For further information and high resolution images, contact:
ITV Press Office
020 7737 xxxx
Portland for 3DD
020 7404 xxxx
About 3DD Productions
3DD Productions is an independent film and television production
company specialising in live event programming, high profile
documentaries and independent films. It is a joint venture between
leading European independent music and entertainment distributor, 3DD
Entertainment Ltd, and producer Andrew Higgie, who for the past four
years ran the Filmed Entertainment Division of Clear Channel
About Agatha Christie:
Known the world over as the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie
(1890-1976) is the world’s best-known mystery writer. Her books have
sold over a billion copies in the English language and another billion
in over 45 foreign languages. She is outsold only by the Bible and
Here is my correspondence with “project leader Dr Roland Kapferer PhD”:
here are the questions i was wanting to run by you:
Who funded the academic research that is referred to in the press
releases, the many news articles, and in the tv program?
Has the research been published?
What are the references for these papers?
What is the evidence for this quote, which appears in all the
newspaper reports covering the story:
“Christie’s language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in
the brain. The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s
writing literally unputdownable.”
Specifically, what experiment was done to show this? Was Christie
compared to other authors work? What was measured in the experiment?
Was it SPECT or PET to look at release of opiates and serotonin
directly? Or was this inferred from bloodflow data?
And what was the experiment done to show that agatha christie will
“raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in
the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.”
What are the jobs of the “linguistic experts from the University of
Warwick, University of Birmingham, London University and King’s
College, London” who have “found a clear pattern of recurring literary
devices that stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain”? How
did they measure this higher than usual activity, or from what other
research measuring brain activity do they infer this, and what do you
mean by brain activity?
And lastly, you are described as “project leader, Dr Roland Kapferer
PhD” and quoted delivering all the scientific information in all the
stories. What do you do for a living? And are you the cultural studies
theorist who wrote this article in the journal Social Analysis :
“It’s a small world after all, or, consultancy and the disneyfication
of thought” Social Analysis, March, 2003 by Roland Kapferer?
my copy deadline is next weds,
Roland Kapferer to ben
I’m sorry we were unable to speak on the phone – I hope you received
the message I left you. I’m currently travelling and so I’m forced to
write this from an internet cafe in Australia.
It has been interesting to see the responses to our televsion program
– which was always intended as a provocation of sorts, something which
might set the cat amongst a few stuffy, puffed up pigeons! It has also
been at times hilarious and more than a little depressing to witness
the ways in which newspapers and journalists operate. All that was
written was based on one very quick interview I did with the Sunday
Times. This article was not a particularly accurate report on what I
said and things spiralled downward from there. Indeed, the Guardian
used this interview as the basis for its own shoddy report. Why
investigate something when you can simply repeat what someone else has
This is not a case of bad science but of good science meeting bad journalism!
Needless to say, “The Agatha Christie Code” was always intended to be
a little tongue in cheek and viewers were supposed to get the irony
with which some of the information was delivered. (Surely the very
title of the program with its obvious reference to the popular
interest in “codes” after the Da Vinci Code should have been a clue!)
This is not to say, of course, that the tv show was not reporting a
serious study – a great deal of careful computer aided research was
undertaken – but NO PET SPECT or fMRI was done. Like Jerry Fodor,
www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n19/fodo01_.html, I’m dubious about a lot of
the popular excitement regarding fMRI and PET and it was partly my
intention to lampoon the very idea of PET as a way of understanding
human creativity. This goes also for the discussion of seretonin and
endorphins and all the stuff about “brain activity.”
[Check it out: he is so clever, he was mocking science by overstating
the science in his program to a journalist.]
But I need to get to your questions.
Firstly one thing should be clear from the outset. The research was
funded by 3DD productions a UK television production company headed by
Andrew Higgie. This is an innovative production company which aims to
create thought provoking programs that go against the vulgar trend of
a lot of British tv – reality shows, list shows etc
I think you’ll agree that we were able to introduce in an entertaining
way some concepts which would have been quite unexpected for regular
watchers of ITV1 or Agatha Christie fans – long distance nested
dependencies, syntactic parsing, Lacanian psychoanalysis, discrete
combinatorial systems etc. A remarkable achievment given the poor
condition of the current UK television landscape!
The idea for the program was initially suggested by Andrew Higgie who
hired me to organise the academic side of things. We began from a very
simple question: is there any reason why Agatha Christie has sold more
books than anyone else besides Shakespeare? Is there a scientific way
of understanding her monumental success? I took this starting point as
an opportunity to pose some serious questions about writing and
reading, science and even get a little dig at some popular
universalist-cognitivist notions about the human mind! It seems a lot
of people have taken the bait –
www.raygirvan.co.uk/apoth/thought.htm. This guy really didn’t
get it at all!
The research is indeed serious and it is what should be understood as
“good science.” I understand good science as Albert Einstein
understood it – as a largely un-systematic and opportunistic
enterprise. Good science is made up of multiple complex procedures and
cannot be reduced to rules and methodologies posed in advance without
regard to the socio-cultural and historical conditions in which it is
undertaken. (Of course you will recognise that I am not thereby making
claim for some simple minded relativist position. I argue that the
context of all thought is vital to its imaginary and that no
scientific potential is limited or reducible to its context.
Nevertheless it is entirely necessary for all scientific thought to
examine the context in which its own imagined constructs are possible.
I very much believe in science but not science as it has been twisted
and distorted by positivists.)
Following Paul Feyerabend I would argue that science knows no ‘bare
facts.’ And no such clearly defined process as a ‘scientific method’.
Even the definitions of “experiment”, “evidence” etc vary wildly.
Again, what we have here is not a case of “bad science” but good
science meeting bad journalism!
The statement reported in the press about language patterns which
stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain and release
neurological opiates is of course a speculative proposition based on
some comments by hypntists Paul Mckenna and Richard Bandler. It is of
course guess-work and playful guesswork at that. And why not? There is
no reason that I can see why this is not acceptable as part of a
scientific study. Speculation and guess work is part of all scientific
Christie was compared to other authors by Dr Pernilla Danielsson at
the department of English University of Birmingham using the Bank of
English Corpus and a clustering tool provided by Dr Colin Frayn Dr
Andrew Pyke and Mr Oliver Mason. The Bank of English is a 530 million
word corpus (language database) compiled by Harper Collins, Glasgow
and University of Birmingham. Data was run in the clustering tool
which works on various vector analyses and attempts to cluster the
input. Christie was specifically compared with Conan Doyle and the
British Books section from the Bank of English. Dr Richard Forsyth a
research Fellow in Applied Linguistics from Warwick University also
ran some satistical programs he wrote on Christie and other authors
such as PD James. Dr Marcus Dahl who is a Research Fellow on the John
Ford project at the School of Advanced Study at the Univeristy of
London also made extensive use of a Concordance program (designed by
RJC Watt at Dundee). Dr Willard McArty and Dr Marilyn Deegan at the
Humanities Computing Centre at Kings College also discussed the
project with me and helped me to refine some of the ideas.
The research has not been published yet. Dr Danielsson and Dr Forsyth
both told me they are considering writing papers on their research.
I have a PhD in Philosophy from the Macquarie University, New South
Wales, Australia. I have taught at Macquarie Univerisity and the
University of New South Wales. I have published in the fields of
philosophy, anthropology and art theory. Yes, I am the author of the
article in Social Analysis which you mention. I also work in
television as an associate producer. I have produced another
television program in Australia on religion. I have worked extensively
as a popular musician in Australia and Japan – hence the “Buckaroo
Banzai” reference I read in one blog about the show! I’m happier with
“philosopher” or “musician” than I am with “cultural studies
theorist”. I am certainly NOT a cultural studies theorist – I am, on
the contrary, a serious social scientist.
I hope all this is sufficient answer to your questions. I expect that
you will disagree with lots of what I have written here and I would
heartily welcome any comments you might have. Lets discuss this
further. After all, this was the idea behind The Agatha Christie Code
– to get people to think and discuss the many different ideas it
I hope to hear from you soon,
This is Kapferer’s only response to my piece so far, broadcast on Triple J radio in Australia last Sunday:
I think he makes some very good points early on.