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.

25 April 2010

Practical magic

Filed under: communications, Events, Humanity Plus, magic, marketing, UKH+ — David Wood @ 10:26 pm

I won’t reveal the content of the tricks.  That would be unfair on the performer.

Our dining group at Soho’s Little Italy restaurant had been pleasantly surprised by the unannounced entrance of a lady magician, before the orders for coffee were taken.  Where were we from, she asked.  Answers followed, hesitatingly: Belgium, Germany, Sweden, New York, London…

The atmosphere changed from guarded politeness to unguarded amazement as the magician blazed her way through some fast-paced sleight of hand with newspapers, water, money, ribbons, and playing cards.  Many of our group of hardened rationalists and technophiles were gasping with astonishment.  How did she do that?

It was a fitting end to a day that had seen a fair share of other kinds of magic.

Despite my nervous forebodings from earlier in the week, the Humanity+ UK2010 event had seen a 100% turn out of speakers, ran (near enough) to time, and covered a vast range of intriguing ideas about forthcoming new technology and the enhancement of humanity.  An audience of approaching 200 people in London’s Conway Hall seemed to find much to think about, from what they’d heard.  Here’s a brief sample of online feedback so far:

Awesome conference – all your work paid off and then some!

Great conference today #hplusuk : thank you!

Enjoyed H+ event, esp @anderssandberg preso. Learnt about singularity, AI+, wireheads, future shock, SENS, protocells & more

Most enjoyable conference today. Thanks to the organisers and speakers

A few hours literally day dreaming, blown away by human cleverness.  These people should be allowed to talk on prime time on BBC regularly

Humanity+ today was terrific. I particulary enjoyed the talks from Amon Twyman – Expanding perception and transhumanist art, Natasha Vita-More – DIY Enhancement, Aubrey de Grey’s Life Expansion and Rachel Armstrong’s Living Technology

Great talk @davidorban how the #internetofthings could free us to be human again. Couldn’t agree more. #hplusuk

Love David Pearce, a true visionary! #hplusuk

Behind the scenes, a team of volunteers were ensuring that things ran as smoothly as possible – with a very early start in the morning following a late evening the previous day.  In my professional life over the years I’ve often been responsible for major events, such as the Symbian developer events and smartphone shows, where I had visibility of the amount of work required to make an event a success.  But in all these cases, I had a team of events managers working for me – including first-class professionals such as Amy Graller, Jo Butler, Liza Fox, and Alice Kenny, as well as brand managers, PR managers, and so on.  These teams shielded me from a great deal of the underlying drama of managing events.  In contrast, this time, our entire team were volunteers, and there was no alternative to getting our own hands dirty!  Huge amounts of thanks are due to everyone involved in pulling off this piece of magic.

Needless to say, some things fell short of perfection.  I heard mild-mannered grumbles:

  • That there wasn’t enough time for audience Q&A – and that too many of the questions that were raised from the floor were imprecise or unfocused;
  • That the audio from our experimental live streaming from the event was too choppy – due to shortcomings in the Internet connectivity from the event (something that will need to be fixed before I consider holding another similar event there);
  • That some of the presentations had parts that were too academic for some members of the audience, or assumed more background knowledge than people actually possessed;
  • That there should have been more journalists present, hearing material that deserves wide coverage.

The mail list used by the Humanity+ UK organising team is already reflecting on “what went well” and “what could be improved”.  Provisionally, we have in mind a follow-up event early next year.  We’re open for suggestions!  What scale should we have in mind?  What key objectives?

Because I was rushing around on the day, trying to ensure everything was ready for the next phase of the event, I found myself unable to concentrate for long on the presentations themselves.  (I’ll need to watch the videos of the talks, once they’re available.)  However, a few items successfully penetrated my mental fog.  I was particularly struck by descriptions of potential engineering breakthroughs:

This kind of information appeals to the engineer in me.  It’s akin to “practical magic”.

I was also struck by discussions of flawed societal priorities, covering instances where publications give undue prominence to matters of low importance, to the exclusion of more accurate coverage of technological issues.  For example, Nick Bostrom reported, during his talk “Reducing Existential Risks” that there are more scholarly papers on dung beetle reproduction than on the possibilities of human extinction.  And Aubrey de Grey gave examples of sensationalist headlines even in a normally responsible newspaper, for anti-aging news of little intrinsic value, whilst genuinely promising news receives scant coverage.

What is the solution to this kind of broken prioritisation? The discussion among the final speaker panel of the day helped to distill an answer.  The Humanity+ organisation, along with those who support its aims, need to become better at the discipline of marketing. Once we convey our essential messages more effectively, society as a whole should hear and understand what we are saying, and respond positively.  There’s a great art – and great skill – to the practice of communication.

Some people dislike the term “marketing”, as if it’s a swear word.  But I see it as follows.  In general terms, “marketing” for any organisation means:

  • Deciding on a strategic focus – as opposed to a scattergun approach;
  • Understanding how various news items or other pieces of information or activism might be received by people in the wider community;
  • Finding better ways to convey the chosen key messages;
  • Engaging within the wider community – listening more than talking – and learning in the light of that conversation;
  • Repeating the above steps, with increasingly better understanding and better execution.

At 5pm, we had to hurriedly leave the venue, because it was needed for another function starting at 6pm.  It was hard to move everyone outside the main hall, since there were so many intense group discussions happening.  Eventually, some of us started on a 20 minute walk through central London, from Holborn to Soho, for the post-event dinner at Little Italy.  The food was delicious, the waitresses coped well (and with many friendly smiles) with all our many requests, and the conversation was first class.  The magician provided a great interlude.  I left the restaurant, several hours later, with a growing list of suggestions for topics for talks in the normal UKH+ monthly meetings that could bring in a good audience.  Happily, I also have a growing list of names of people who want to provide more active assistance in building an enhanced community of supporters of the aims of Humanity+.

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