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14 January 2012

Speaking of angels – visions of a world beyond

Filed under: books, irrationality, magic, paranormal, psychology — David Wood @ 1:03 am

How open-minded are you?

  • Suppose someone you’ve never met before takes a look at the palm of your hand, and shortly afterwards tells you surprising things about yourself – for example, about private issues experienced by your family, that no one else knows about.  What would your reaction be?
  • Or consider the case of people apparently leaving their bodies, whilst near death, and travelling around the neighbourhood in an out-of-body experience, observing hidden details that could only be noticed by someone high up in the sky.  Isn’t that thought-provoking?
  • Or what about reliable, trustworthy witnesses who return from spiritualist seances reporting materialisations and apparitions that the best conjurors of the day realise they could not possibly duplicate?
  • What about a president of the United States (Abraham Lincoln) who dreamed the details of his own death, in a precognition, several weeks ahead of that dreadful event?
  • What about someone who can cause the pages of a bible in another part of the room to turn over?  Or pencils to rotate?  Or solid steel spoons to bend and break?
  • Finally, what about a dog which springs to the window, seemingly knowing in advance that their owner has set off from work to return home, and will shortly be arriving at the house?

All these phenomena, and a lot more like them, are described in Professor Richard Wiseman’s recent book, “Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there“.

At face value, these phenomena testify to the presence of powers far beyond the present understanding of science.  They suggest the existence of some kind of angelic realm, in which information can travel telepathically, from one brain to another, and even backwards in time.

One common reaction to this kind of report is to cough in embarrassment, or make a joke, and move on to another topic.

Another reaction is to become a debunker.  Indeed, Wiseman’s book contains some splendid debunking.  I won’t spoil the fun by sharing these details here, but you can bear in mind the apparently miraculous feats demonstrated right in front of spectators’ eyes by magicians like Derren Brown or “Dynamo“.  (As noted on his website, Wiseman “started his working life as a professional magician, and is a Member of the Inner Magic Circle”.)

However, “Paranormality” goes far beyond debunking.  Although some of the apparently paranormal events do have mundane explanations, for others, the explanation is more wonderful.  These explanations reveal fascinating details about the way the human mind operates – details that have only come to be understood within recent years.

These explanations don’t involve any actual transfer of disembodied thought, or any transcendent angelic realm.  Instead, they shed light on topics such as:

  • Circumstances when the mind can become convinced that it is located outside the body
  • Ways to pick up subliminal cues, by which people “leak” information to one another via subtle movements
  • The sometimes spectacular unreliability of human memory
  • Cognitive dissonance – how people react when, on the surface, prophetic statements have proven false
  • The functioning of dreams, linked to sleep paralysis
  • Circumstances when people feel that there’s a ghostly presence
  • Purposeful movements made by the body, without the awareness of the conscious mind
  • Limitations in the mind’s concept that it has free will.

The book also retells some dramatic historical episodes.  Some of these episodes were already familiar to me, from my days doing postgraduate research in the philosophy of science, when I looked hard and long at the history of research into the paranormal.  Others were, I confess, new to me – including an account of Michael Faraday’s investigation of the mechanics behind table-turning at seances.

The book has many practical tips too:

  • How to develop the habit of “lucid dreams” (when you’re aware that you’re dreaming)
  • How to impress people that you can (apparently) read their mind and discern hidden depths of their character
  • How to distract an audience, so that they fail to notice what’s right in front of them
  • How to organise a group of people around a table, so that the table apparently starts moving of its own volition
  • How to avoid losing control of your mind in circumstances when powerful persuasive influences operate.

In other words, rather than dismissing instances of apparent paranormal occurrences as being inevitably misguided, Wiseman suggests there’s a lot to learn from them.

I expect to hear more of the same theme later today, at the “Centre for Inquiry UK” event “Beyond the Veil – a closer look at spirits, mediums and ghosts“.  This is being held at London’s Conway Hall (one of my own favourite London venues).  Richard Wiseman is one of the speakers there.  The full agenda is as follows:

10.30 Registration (tickets will be available at the door)

11.00: Spirits on the brain: Insights from psychology and neuroscience – Chris French, Professor of Psychology and Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London

12.00: ‘Is there anybody there?’ – Hayley Stevens, a ghost hunter that doesn’t hunt for ghosts, who has been researching paranormal reports since 2005.

13.00: Lunch break

13.30: Mediums at Large – Paul Zenon, a professional trickster for almost thirty years, during which period he has appeared countless times as performer, presenter and pundit on numerous TV shows

14.00: Parnormality – Richard Wiseman, Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire

15.00: You Are The Magic – Ian Rowland, writer and entertainer with an interest in various aspects of how the mind works or sometimes doesn’t, who taught FBI agents how to be persuasive, and taught Derren Brown how to read fortunes

16.00: End

Postscript: Wiseman’s book contains a number of 2D barcodes.  The book suggests that readers should point their smartphones at these barcodes.  Their smartphones will then be redirected to short related movies on a special website, such as this one.  It was a pleasant surprise to be reminded of the utility of smartphones while my mind was engrossed in reflections of psychology.

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