The subtitle for Professor Richard Wiseman’s fascinating book, Paranormality, is a simply straightforward phrase: Why we see what isn’t there. Wiseman definitely knows a little something about human perception holding the Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, as well as once being an accomplished magician. His research into the paranormal, and more importantly, why people seem to think they experience the paranormal, has made him a frequent guest on television, and he is certainly well known and highly regarded in the community of skeptics.
His book is broken down into several chapters discussing some classics in the world of paranormal phenomena: fortune-telling, out-of-body experiences, mind over matter, talking with the dead, ghost hunting, mind control and prophesying. All of the so-called phenomena are subjects supported by a large number of believers, some of them quite fervent in their belief. Richard Wiseman, with a humorous storyteller’s manner goes about demonstrating the likelier explanations for such experiences, all having to do with how the brain works. In fact, the explanations he puts forth should be considered even more remarkable than a cold spot in an old house.
It starts with the human brain, a complicated instrument that processes our sensory input in ways we don’t often consider. Now, a lot of what he presents will be somewhat old hat to skeptics, and believers alike, who have read up on the paranormal before. The ideomotor effect when dealing with things like Ouija boards, the cold reading techniques of self-proclaimed psychics and the suggestibility of the brain when dealing with ghostly encounters, and more, are presented in Wiseman’s book, but with an added dollop of humor and gentle wit that really gets across the intriguing, natural reasons why people experience some seemingly weird things. In addition to his charming writing style, he backs up his claims with scientific facts, detailed references, anecdotes and interactive elements such as practical experiments readers can do on their own and q-tags and hyperlinks to videos further illustrating his points. I even got to try out one of his little tricks on my mom where I made her index fingers move closer together without touching them (this got a nice chuckle out of her).
Not in the book, but a fun look at the kinds of things Richard Wiseman discusses.
So, when something goes bump in the night or you think a dead guy just had a conversation with you, ask yourself: Can I trust my senses? The answer is sometimes you just can’t. And if you think the mundane science takes the sense of wonder out of the exotically “supernatural”, please reconsider. The brain itself is a thing of wonder, and that can’t be emphasized enough.
Definitely an engaging read, and besides, there are stories about an unseen talking mongoose and a horse that can do math. Regardless of your beliefs or your cultural background, that’s some high comedy right there.