March 2, 2011
By Julie Carpenter

Professor Richard Wiseman is explaining a particularly common sighting of a “ghost” – where people claim to see a shadowy figure standing by their bedside. “Most of them happen as people are either drifting into sleep or coming out of sleep,” he says. “Basically the brain creates an overlap between your dreaming world and the real world.

“You see a figure when you’re waking up because you’re coming out of a dream. When you’re in a dream your body is paralysed so you don’t move around and hurt yourself but because you think you see a figure and you can’t move people are often terrified because they assume it’s the figure that’s trapping them. That’s a very common paranormal experience. And of course the ghost slowly vanishes because you’re becoming conscious.”

This is one of the “paranormal” phenomena that Wiseman, a pro- fessor in “public psychology” at the ­University of Hertfordshire, has investigated in his new book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’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 ­paranormal are illusions.

“We’re basically wired to have very weird experiences, whether it’s out-of-body experiences or seeing ghosts or believing a psychic knows all about us,” he says. “Having studied these things for about 20 years I don’t think any of them are actually true but what is fascinating is the psychology – the fact that we can convince ourselves that they are.”

After “spending sleepless nights in supposedly haunted houses, testing mediums and psychics and carrying out laboratory experiments into telepathy” 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. “They can be due to what’s known as hypervigilance,” he says. “If you go into a place that’s allegedly haunted and you’re a believer in ghosts, you’ll become very afraid. For good evolutionary reasons, when we’re afraid we start listening out for sounds that we wouldn’t ­otherwise. Once you hear a creaking door you’ll attribute that to a ghost and so the process feeds off itself”.


When it comes to photos which appear to show spectral faces, he says: “People sometimes see ghostly or demonic images in things like smoke or fire but it’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. We’ve evolved to see faces that aren’t there rather than to miss one.”

A ccording to Wiseman, it is more interesting to discover what your brain is doing rather than explain away an image as a ghost. “People find that comforting because they feel the idea of spirits and demons really quite worrying.”

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 ­psychic research and has come to a different conclusion.

“Just because psychology may account for some paranormal observations, it might not account for all,” he said on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday. “We quite commonly hear stories of little children who go to their parents saying ‘mummy, mummy – granny was here just now’ or ‘auntie Joan’s been in my room’ and then the phone rings and auntie Joan’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.”

Wiseman partly explains these phenomena through what he terms “the law of large numbers” – really just coincidence – saying we will often ­disregard times when children are concerned about a particular relative who turns out to be just fine.

“We all like to think that we have untapped psychic potential and get excited when we think of a friend, the telephone rings and they’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 day’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 didn’t come true.”

He points out that 80 per cent of our dreams are actually negative, largely because they feed off our anxieties. “Because 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.”

He adds: “It’s also possible that we pick up on something unconsciously. Let’s suppose you dream that you have a car accident and the next day you do. It might be that unconsciously you’ve heard the car running slightly differently over the last few days and you haven’t really registered it but it has emerged in the dream and it’s that problem with the car which has caused the accident.”

Wiseman also has explanations for the likes of psychic readings (“they tend to be very general statements and people are very good at reading meaning into them”) and for out-of-body experiences.

“This is the notion that you’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,” he says. “Now there’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 – for example, if you’ve been given drugs or anaesthetic or you’ve been lying down for a long period of time – your brain can only rely on visual imagination. If you’ve got a good imagination, it’s very easy for your body to think it’s somewhere else.”

What Wiseman’s book is trying to do, he says, is simply look at the other side of the psychic story.

“There is a huge amount of literature saying psychics can do amazing things or that dreams can ­predict the future but my research is an attempt to say there’s no need to buy in to all of that. There’s a psychology to all this paranormal activity and there’s no need to be scared – 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.”

He adds he is staggered that his book is proving controversial. “This is 2011,” he says. “We shouldn’t be thinking in terms of magical forces, or pixies. We should just be thinking in terms of science and technology.”
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