In case you wondered which side of the debate Richard Wiseman comes down on when it comes to ghosts and goblins, it’s right there in the subtitle — ‘why we see what isn’t there’.
Whether you believe or not, Paranormality is essential reading if you’re interested in the supposedly supernatural. Unlike a psychic telling you she can feel spirits in a cold room or the grieving spouse who swears a departed partner is watching over them, Wiseman has a unique insight — as a psychologist he knows just how much our brains can trick us.
The strongest message in Paranormality (perhaps unwittingly) is just how shaky our control over our consciousness really is. What we think we know is actually at the constant mercy of what our brain wants us to see to preserve the whole organism.
Behaviourists and biologists will tell you our powers of pattern recognition (might that rustle in the long grass be a saber-toothed cat or the wind?) are second to none, and Paranormality points out how we can be literally too good at it, indeed seeing what isn’t there.
The human mind also employs incredible powers of filtration to save us from sensory overload, assigning importance on occurrences that make them seem rare. When we dream of the death of a famous celebrity and a few days it actually happens, we wonder if we can see into the future — we’ve forgotten literally thousands of dreams about celebrities dying who inconveniently kept on breathing.
In fact Paranormality will be challenging to your very sense of self. A very unsettling theory by Harvard professor of psychology Dan Wegner believes the brain is only responding to stimulus, tricking us into thinking it’s our free will at work.
You’ll be tempted to huff indignantly and assure yourself you’d never fall for most of the failings Wiseman describes, but there are enough real-world examples to bring you up short. When he explains a basic four-step process to illustrate how easily we can be brainwashed, the mass suicide at Jonestown (which he references) seems chillingly plausible. Or there’s a less sinister example where 75 percent of people in a psychology study conformed to a majority opinion that was clearly wrong, and that was about something as inconsequential as the length of lines on a piece of paper.
So, armed with truly disturbing research about how easy you are to fool, Wiseman pillories one institution after another including ghosts, automatic writing, spirit mediums and palmistry or tarot. As he explains, the mark of a good fortune-teller is one who tells you what you want to hear rather than looks into your soul. Vague statements seem startlingly relevant when our importance-censorship engine simply ignores ‘findings’ that don’t seem to apply to us.
Paranormality can be viewed as a litany of human flaws, but don’t feel too bad — everyone has the same ‘egocentric bias’ that makes you overestimate your abilities and uniqueness. Most fascinating is the insight into our relationship with our body’s sense of space. It’s actually easy to fool your brain into thinking a fake limb belongs to you, so it’s no great stretch to imagine the feeling of leaving your body altogether — the hallmark of an out of body experience.
The short chapters and minimal jargon make it very easy to digest and — ever the 21st century academic — Wiseman sprinkles the book with QR codes so you can go direct to related videos on your mobile. If you’re not so equipped, Paranormality is still a very enjoyable as well as informative book.
The style is lively and engaging, but the biggest surprise is how funny it is, with more laugh-out-loud lines than you ever thought you’d read in a book about psychology (‘other than that did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln?’). It’s a great primer into your relationship with your mind as much as it aims to be the final word on things that go bump in the night.