Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am


Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There
by Richard Wiseman

It's good to be suspicious of books that advertise their author's academic titles or qualifications on the front. For scholarly books it's unnecessary, and for others, it gives the impression the writer is demanding an advance payment of respect before you even start reading. Still, Professor Richard Wiseman is no ordinary academic. Before training as a psychologist, he had a successful first career as a professional magician. Learning how to bamboozle people into seeing what wasn't there was good preparation for his work on the psychology of the paranormal.

Can you believe there is a terrier in Ramsbottom with the psychic powers to predict the time its master will come home? Can tarot cards, dealt at random, reveal the secrets of the personality? Have ghosts of the departed been proved to show up unexpectedly in photographs? Is it true that when the soul departs the body, the body loses 21 grams in weight? Is Elvis alive?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, this book is going to be a disappointment to you.

When Wiseman meets what he calls the paranormal, he does not take it for evidence of the suspension of the laws of nature, or a communication from the restless dead, or the existence of small green persons from outer space. What he finds most interesting about such phenomena is why we are all so ready to believe in them.

There are several more or less psychological names for the causes of our credulity: egocentric bias; selective memory; meaning inference; suggestibility; and the physiological quirks of perception, memory and dreaming.

Wiseman is amused by our disposition to believe things when we should know better, but his rationalism is not intolerant. In the end it's simple enough: we come half-way to meet this hokum because we want to. Why can't the laws of nature ever change?

What's the point of getting up in the morning if there is absolutely no chance of seeing a miracle? Why shouldn't life deliver us something amazing and inexplicable, instead of the usual stuff day after day? The paranormal may not be real, but what's so great about the normal?