Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman (2011)
In which we find out why we are all wired for the weird
and contemplate the nature of wonder.
We are nearing the end of our adventure into the wonderful world of supernatural science. In the first part of our journey we discovered how psychic readings reveal the real you, how out-of-body experiences show how your brain is deciding where you actually are right now, how displays of alleged psychokinesis demonstrate why seeing isn’t believing, and how attempts to talk with the dead illustrate the power of your unconscious mind. In the second half of our expedition we have discovered how ghostly experiences yield important insights into the psychology of suggestion, how mind control experts manipulate your thoughts, and how prophetic dreams can be explained by the science of sleep. Along the way we have also learned how to create a variety of weird experiences. All being well you should now be able to, amongst other things, conduct a Ouija board session, float away from your body, tell complete strangers all about themselves, appear to bend metal with the power of your mind, avoid being brainwashed, and control your dreams.
There is, however, one important issue that has yet to be tackled. Why is it that we have evolved to experience the impossible? Our minds have helped rid the world of terrible diseases, put a man on the moon, and begun to figure out the origins of the universe. Why then, are they capable of being fooled into thinking that the soul can leave the body, that ghosts exist, and that our dreams really do predict the future? Strangely enough, the two issues are intimately connected. However, before we find out how this is the case, it is time to return to the exercise that you completed at the very start of the book.
As you may remember, I presented you with an inkblot and asked you to decide what it looked like. This type of test was developed by Freudian therapists in an attempt to gain an insight into their patients. According to them, people unwittingly project their innermost thoughts and feelings onto the image, thus allowing a skilled therapist to gain a deep insight into their patient’s unconscious. A considerable amount of research has now demonstrated that such tests are both inaccurate and unreliable.1 However, every cloud has a silver lining and, on the upside, the test has given rise to several good jokes, including my favourite: ‘My psychoanalyst is terrible, and I have no idea what he is doing with so many pictures of my mother naked.’
I digress. Although the test does not provide a portal into your unconscious, it does genuinely measure something that is far more important - your ability to see patterns. How did you score? In the same way that some people are short and others are tall, so some people are naturally good at spotting patterns, even in meaningless inkblots. They look at the image and immediately see the face of a poodle, two rabbits eating some grass, or a teddy bear propped up in bed. Others look at the same image for ten minutes but can still see nothing more than a few black splodges.
The ability to find patterns plays a crucial role in your everyday life because you are constantly required to spot genuine instances of cause and effect. For example, you might feel sick every time you eat certain foods and need to figure out what ingredients are making you ill. Or you might want to buy a new car and so scrutinize several reviews to find the common threads that will lead to an informed purchase. Or you might have to have several relationships before you can work out what makes for your perfect partner. This ability to spot genuine patterns has played a vital role in the success and survival of the human species. Most of the time this skill serves us well and allows us to figure out how the world works. However, once in a while it goes into overdrive and causes us to see what isn’t there.
Let’s imagine that you are out in the wilderness and the wind causes some nearby bushes to rustle. Moreover, you have been told that there are several hungry tigers in the area and know that they create the same type of rustling sound. You are faced with a simple choice - do you decide that the rustling is due to the wind and stay put, or conclude that it might well be a tiger and run away? Clearly, in terms of your long-term survival, you are better to err on the safe side and come down in favour of the tiger hypothesis. After all, as the old saying goes, it is always better to run away from the wind than face a hungry tiger. Or, to put it in more psychological terms, it is better to see a few patterns that are not actually there than miss one that is.
Because of this, your pattern-finding skills have a built-in tendency to find connections between completely unrelated events. In doing so, you can easily convince yourself that you have experienced the impossible. For example, you might find some striking relationships between a palmist’s meaningless statements and your past, and conclude that fortune-telling is genuine. Or you may see correspondences between a random dream and the subsequent events in your life, and decide that you have the gift of prophecy. Or you might look at an unremarkable photograph of rocks reflected in a lake and manage to find a ‘ghostly’ face in the water. Or you might watch a ‘psychic’ focus their attention on a spoon, see the spoon bend, and conclude that the bending was the result of the psychic’s amazing paranormal abilities. Or you might place a lucky charm in your pocket before an important job interview, be offered the job, and conclude that the charm somehow caused your good fortune. The list is endless.
This grand theory of the paranormal predicts that people who are especially good at finding such patterns should be more likely than most to experience seemingly supernatural phenomena. But is that the case? To find out, researchers presented people with variations on the inkblot test and asked them about the supernatural events that they have experienced.2 Exactly as predicted, the results revealed that those who obtain especially high scores on pattern-finding tests also experience way more weird stuff.
In short, the ability to find patterns is so important to your survival that your brain would rather see a few imaginary patterns than miss genuine instances of cause and effect. Seen in this way, seemingly supernatural experiences are not the result of your brain tripping up so much as the price you pay for being so amazing the rest of the time.
We have almost completed our journey. It has been fun having you along for the ride, and I hope that you have enjoyed the trip. I would like to leave you with one final thought.
Many years ago I worked as a restaurant magician. Moving from table to table, I would perform card tricks and try my best to ensure that everyone had a good time. At the end of my performance customers would frequently ask the same ‘joke’ question, namely, ‘Can you make my bill disappear?’ Each person believed that they were the first one to think of the question and, as the consummate professional, I would force a laugh every time. I was not the only magician to endure the comment night after night. In fact, it was a widely recognized international phenomenon. One well-known American performer wrote the question on a small card and placed a series of ticks next to it. Whenever a customer came out with the question the magician would laugh, then remove the card from his wallet and openly add another tick.
Nowadays I no longer wander around restaurants performing card tricks. However, I do frequently give presentations about the paranormal and talk about much of the material in this book. After the talk at least one person always asks the same question. Instead of wanting to know whether I can make the bill disappear, they ask if there are any paranormal phenomena that I haven’t been able to scientifically explain. When I reply that I have yet to come across any compelling evidence for the supernatural, the questioner often looks extremely disappointed. Their reaction usually stems from a belief that a world devoid of supernatural phenomena is somehow less wondrous than one that contains the impossible. I believe that this belief is mistaken.
American mathematician and science writer Martin Gardner was one of my academic heroes. He died in 2010, aged 95, and in one of his last interviews spoke about the notion of wonder.3 Gardner posed a simple thought experiment. Imagine that someone discovered a river of wine or found a way of making an object float high into the air. How much money would you pay to visit the river or see the levitating object? Most people gladly offer large sums of money to witness such seemingly miraculous phenomena. Gardner then pointed out that a river of water is just as wonderful as a river of wine, and that an object being attracted to the earth is no less remarkable than it being attracted to the sky. I believe that he was right. To believe that the findings of supernatural science remove wonder from the world is to fail to see the remarkable events that surround us every day of our lives. And, unlike those who appear to talk with the dead or move objects with the power of their minds, these amazing phenomena are genuine.
Before we set off on our expedition I said that we were going to travel to a world more wonderful than Oz. There was no need to travel very far. You already live there. As Dorothy so memorably put it at the end of that wonderful movie, there’s no place like home.