On all things wondrous strange: ghosts, mediums, and rubber hands
Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there
by Professor Richard Wiseman.
Where Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion comprehensively demolishes the towering edifice of theology and religious belief, Richard Wiseman’s exhilarating new book brings crashing down the twin tower of all things spiritual.
The former magician and member of the Magic Circle changed tack twenty years ago to investigate the psychology of the paranormal, and to pursue a subtle but hugely important insight: the essential issue is not ‘is that really a ghost?’ but ‘why would anyone believe that is a ghost?’
In his first act of destruction, Wiseman swings his intellectual sledgehammer against psychics and mediums. What’s fascinating is how the psychological techniques used by mediums for ‘cold reading’ (fortune telling) provide a deep insight into everyday human interactions.
The Prof goes on to describe six techniques, including a victim’s propensity to always believe flattery and to see and hear what they want to, and in using subtle feedback to guide the conversation.
He invokes the famous study where couples were individually asked to rate what percentage of home chores they carried out. The combined totals always exceeded 100%.
But missing was the other truism that anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, whereas anyone who drives faster, is a maniac.
The rarely-asked question ‘Why do you think that you are inside your own body?’ is answered by describing an experiment using such everyday household objects as ‘a table, a large coffee-table book, a towel, a rubber hand and an open-minded friend.’
The bizarre experiment proves that the sense of being inside your own body is simply an illusion created by your brain, based on incoming sensory information. It’s fascinating, it works, and I recommend the experiment to everyone, not least because it explains out-of-body experiences.
Next comes Ouija boards, ‘automatic writing’, tables flying about the room and trapping participants against the wall, and other such psychic delights. I won’t spoil the story now, but it all comes down to the brain being inexorably drawn to unconsciously do exactly what you are trying not to. Don’t believe me? Go on then – spend the next three minutes in silent contemplation, but not thinking, even fleetingly, about polar bears.
Wiseman writes with a lightness and enthusiasm which make his books irritatingly un-put-down-able, plus the man appears psychologically incapable of writing any kind of list without inserting a spoof entry for humorous effect. It’s very funny when the unexpected punch line slaps you in the face from nowhere. Whether the trait is innate or acquired I have no idea: there’s a research PhD in there for somebody.
Ghosts are exorcised by the human mind’s extraordinary susceptibility to suggestion. Apparently most reports of ghostly experiences tend to be more of the flash of grey in the distance type, rather than of ‘skeletons prancing through graveyards.’ That’s sad, since the latter would be so much more visually appealing.
But again the question is why have human brains evolved to detect non-existent entities? As is so often the case it’s Charles Darwin’s fault: evolution has selected for it to be better to run from the wind than to meet the tiger. If you’re intrigued, and want a full explanation of the totally convincing theory, you’ll have to buy your own copy.
My only gripe is a trivial one. The title, ‘Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there,’ lacks the obvious addendum ‘… and miss what is’. Maybe ink is expensive.
The book ends with seditious instructions on how to be the star of your next dinner party, including an ingenious experiment which not only explains the innermost workings of the brain, but is also ‘great for chatting people up in bars’.
Thanks for that Prof, I think you might be right. Must go!