IS THE PARANORMAL JUST A CON?
IS THE PARANORMAL JUST A CON?
March 2, 2011
By Julie Carpenter
Professor Richard Wiseman is explaining a particularly common sighting of a â€œghostâ€ â€“ where people claim to see a shadowy figure standing by their bedside. â€œMost of them happen as people are either drifting into sleep or coming out of sleep,â€ he says. â€œBasically the brain creates an overlap between your dreaming world and the real world.
â€œYou see a figure when youâ€™re waking up because youâ€™re coming out of a dream. When youâ€™re in a dream your body is paralysed so you donâ€™t move around and hurt yourself but because you think you see a figure and you canâ€™t move people are often terrified because they assume itâ€™s the figure thatâ€™s trapping them. Thatâ€™s a very common paranormal experience. And of course the ghost slowly vanishes because youâ€™re becoming conscious.â€
This is one of the â€œparanormalâ€ phenomena that Wiseman, a pro- fessor in â€œpublic psychologyâ€ at the ÂUniversity of Hertfordshire, has investigated in his new book Paranormality: Why We See What Isnâ€™t There. The clue is in the title and it is safe to assume that Wiseman, a former magician who has worked with the illusionist Derren Brown, is a sceptic when it comes to things that go bump in the night. He believes all forms of the Âparanormal are illusions.
â€œWeâ€™re basically wired to have very weird experiences, whether itâ€™s out-of-body experiences or seeing ghosts or believing a psychic knows all about us,â€ he says. â€œHaving studied these things for about 20 years I donâ€™t think any of them are actually true but what is fascinating is the psychology â€“ the fact that we can convince ourselves that they are.â€
After â€œspending sleepless nights in supposedly haunted houses, testing mediums and psychics and carrying out laboratory experiments into telepathyâ€ what interests Wiseman is discovering what these supposedly paranormal phenomena tell us about our behaviour, beliefs and brain.
There are several other explanations, it seems. â€œThey can be due to whatâ€™s known as hypervigilance,â€ he says. â€œIf you go into a place thatâ€™s allegedly haunted and youâ€™re a believer in ghosts, youâ€™ll become very afraid. For good evolutionary reasons, when weâ€™re afraid we start listening out for sounds that we wouldnâ€™t Âotherwise. Once you hear a creaking door youâ€™ll attribute that to a ghost and so the process feeds off itselfâ€.
When it comes to photos which appear to show spectral faces, he says: â€œPeople sometimes see ghostly or demonic images in things like smoke or fire but itâ€™s because the brain is constantly searching for faces they are so important to us as human beings. Big chunks of the brain, for instance, are dedicated to finding and making sense of faces. Weâ€™ve evolved to see faces that arenâ€™t there rather than to miss one.â€
A ccording to Wiseman, it is more interesting to discover what your brain is doing rather than explain away an image as a ghost. â€œPeople find that comforting because they feel the idea of spirits and demons really quite worrying.â€
There are thousands of people who would refute the notion that all paranormal activity can be explained as illusion. One of them is Robert McLuhan, who says that has spent 20 years studying Âpsychic research and has come to a different conclusion.
â€œJust because psychology may account for some paranormal observations, it might not account for all,â€ he said on Radio 4â€™s Today programme yesterday. â€œWe quite commonly hear stories of little children who go to their parents saying â€˜mummy, mummy â€“ granny was here just nowâ€™ or â€˜auntie Joanâ€™s been in my roomâ€™ and then the phone rings and auntie Joanâ€™s just had a heart attack and died. These, what researchers call crisis apparitions, are common and they do seem to correlate very often with a person dying or being close to death.â€
Wiseman partly explains these phenomena through what he terms â€œthe law of large numbersâ€ â€“ really just coincidence â€“ saying we will often Âdisregard times when children are concerned about a particular relative who turns out to be just fine.
â€œWe all like to think that we have untapped psychic potential and get excited when we think of a friend, the telephone rings and theyâ€™re on the other end of the line. In doing so we are forgetting all the occasions when we thought about that friend, the telephone rang and it was a double-glazing salesman. Similarly, if we have a dream that reflects the following dayâ€™s events, we are quick to claim the gift of prophecy but in doing so we are ignoring all of the times when our dreams didnâ€™t come true.â€
He points out that 80 per cent of our dreams are actually negative, largely because they feed off our anxieties. â€œBecause of this, bad news is far more likely than good news to trigger the memory of a dream, explaining why so many precognitive dreams involve foreseeing death and disaster. Few people foresee happy events like a wedding.â€
He adds: â€œItâ€™s also possible that we pick up on something unconsciously. Letâ€™s suppose you dream that you have a car accident and the next day you do. It might be that unconsciously youâ€™ve heard the car running slightly differently over the last few days and you havenâ€™t really registered it but it has emerged in the dream and itâ€™s that problem with the car which has caused the accident.â€
Wiseman also has explanations for the likes of psychic readings (â€œthey tend to be very general statements and people are very good at reading meaning into themâ€) and for out-of-body experiences.
â€œThis is the notion that youâ€™ve left your body and you can see it or are flying above. Lots of people adopt all sorts of spiritual beliefs based on it,â€ he says. â€œNow thereâ€™s lots of research to show you can generate these sensations once your brain loses the tactile sense of where you are. If you take that away â€“ for example, if youâ€™ve been given drugs or anaesthetic or youâ€™ve been lying down for a long period of time â€“ your brain can only rely on visual imagination. If youâ€™ve got a good imagination, itâ€™s very easy for your body to think itâ€™s somewhere else.â€
What Wisemanâ€™s book is trying to do, he says, is simply look at the other side of the psychic story.
â€œThere is a huge amount of literature saying psychics can do amazing things or that dreams can Âpredict the future but my research is an attempt to say thereâ€™s no need to buy in to all of that. Thereâ€™s a psychology to all this paranormal activity and thereâ€™s no need to be scared â€“ neither is there a need to trust your future to psychics. You can actually take control and understand what is going on in your mind when these type of events happen.â€
He adds he is staggered that his book is proving controversial. â€œThis is 2011,â€ he says. â€œWe shouldnâ€™t be thinking in terms of magical forces, or pixies. We should just be thinking in terms of science and technology.â€