On February 13, 2009, a close friend of mine got married. I had wondered why anybody would get married on the 13th. This infamous number is least preferred for auspicious occasions. History has shown us many examples.
The thirteenth person in the Last Supper was a traitor, and so Jesus was caught and crucified; if 13 could lead to God’s own man’s death, how much risk do we carry?
I had always stayed away from anything associated with the number 13. I didn’t know that I was suffering from a condition termed Triskaidekaphobia, or fear of number 13, until I came across this tongue-twister in the Oxford dictionary.
My condition seems rather prevalent.While leaving my primary care physician’s office, I noticed that he was located on a floor identified as 12A; his hospital building doesn’t have a 13th floor! Upon Googling, I learnt that most of the buildings in the United States do not name a 13th floor. After the 12th floor, comes 14th, 12A, or M (the 13th alphabet). Many airlines do not carry seat number 13 or row number 13, and many airports do not have gate number 13. At least, I was relieved I wasn’t alone suffering from Triskaidekaphobia.
I gathered much of the awareness of this phobia from an online group for Numberophobics—those that are scared of numbers. In this group, members do not keep track of how many emails they write or receive, and writing dates or times in the email is prohibited, as is calling on the phone as that involves dialing numbers. It was too complex and creepy for me; I decided that my situation was not that bad.
My fears and suspicions of number 13 were many. I believed that if Apollo 13 had been numbered differently, the accident wouldn’t have occurred. The spacecraft came down after an oxygen tank exploded inside, and the astronauts experienced a near death situation, but finally landed safely. Until I visited The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., I even thought that a calendar year was intentionally allotted 12 months so that people don’t fall into 13, 12A, M, or 14 kind of issues. A staff member at the museum clarified that 12 months represent 12 lunar cycles in a year.
I even suspected my North-Indian friend once. He always said “tera” for number 13. “Tera” also means “yours” in Hindi. I was worried that he was directing the bad-luck towards me. Not knowing much of Hindi, I then cross-checked online about Hindi numbers in Devanagari and realized that the “tera” in fact genuinely stands for number 13.
As Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, in his book Complication writes, there is a fear of Friday the 13th among doctors that work at Intensive Care Units. A study reported in the British Medical Journal in 1993 showed that hospital admissions for traffic accidents in a community outside London on Friday the 13th is 52% more as compared to Friday the 6th. It seems doctors face overwhelming workloads on Friday the 13th. The authors of the paper recommended that people stay home on Friday the 13th in order to be safe. Over cautious driving from the fear of accidents on Friday the 13th can also lead to accidents. Lo et al. in their article titled “Answering the Myth: Use of Emergency Services on Friday the 13th” published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2012 reported that penetrating traumas, but not other traumas, were seen more often in emergency departments on Friday the 13th. By the way, fear of Friday the 13th is termed Paraskevidekatriaphobia. Based on surveys it is estimated that 17 million to 21 million Americans suffer from Paraskevidekatriaphobia. They perform rituals before stepping out of their homes, call off to work, and postpone travel or important purchases, causing an estimated $750 million loss annually to businesses.
Britain’s pride, the London Eye, has 32 capsules, numbered 1 to 33, leaving number 13 out. Superstitions are deeply rooted in our minds. If not this superstition we follow some other superstition. Scientists have identified a region of the human brain termed right middle/superior frontal gyrus to be involved in superstitious thinking. Burrhus Frederic Skinner did pioneering research in the field of superstition. In his article titled “Superstition in the Pigeon” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1948, he reported his observation of superstition in pigeons. He placed pigeons in individual cages and provided food at regular intervals through an automatic delivery system. At the time of food delivery, each of the pigeons happened to be executing a response—turning counter-clockwise about the cage, thrusting the head into a corner of the cage, tossing action with the head, pendulum motion of head and body, or incomplete pecking movement—and the pigeon repeated the response. The pigeon behaved as if its behavior caused the food delivery, although, in fact, food delivery was pre-scheduled even if the pigeon did nothing.
My wife, like any other woman, is good at remembering dates and numbers. She showed me in chronological order that I received a job offer, saw my son in a prenatal ultrasound image, received my green card, and most importantly got my parking ticket waived on the 13th day of the months in question. That boosted my spirits. I started to first cautiously and thereafter confidently do things that are important to me on the 13th.
Now I am a changed man. I prefer to do things on 13th. This is my new superstition. In medical terms this would be termed Triskaidekaphilia, and I may be the only one with this condition. By the way, my friend that got married on the 13th has two lovely kids and leads a happy married life.
Prabhakar Putheti is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York. Dr. Putheti has a Ph.D. from Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden. He did his postdoctoral research in Transplantation Immunology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA. He has published 25 scientific articles in leading science journals and has written textbook chapters. Writing, photography, and making cartoons are his hobbies.