4 May 2011


Richard Wiseman. Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There, Macmillan, London, 2011

Professor Wiseman was a professional magician before he began to study psychology and became interested in the investigation of what many believe to be paranormal phenomena. Thus, unlike some psychologists, he is unlikely to be deceived by even the cleverest and most skilful of fake mediums, fortune tellers or spoon benders.
As you might expect from a writer with his background, this book is an interesting mixture of the exposure of magic tricks being passed off as the exercise of genuinely mysterious psychic talents and supernatural powers, and the psychology of perception.

While many apparent psychic phenomena are just magic tricks, delusions or misperceptions, others require more painstaking investigation. Wiseman's account of his efforts to find explanations for Hampton Court Palace's reputation as one of the most haunted buildings in Britain is interesting, but somewhat inconclusive.

His work at the Palace began after a palace official phoned him in January 2001, inviting him to investigate a recent surge in ghostly phenomena. Wiseman obtained a floor plan of the corridor where most of the phenomena were reported (and generally attributed to the ghost of Catherine Howard, one of the wives of Henry VIII, who was beheaded after Henry got to know of her affair with a courtier, Thomas Culpepper).

Wiseman asked a palace warder who had catalogued a century of reports of unusual phenomena to place crosses on the plan to mark where these experiences were consistently reported. Groups of visitors were handed copies of the plan (without the crosses) and asked to mark the locations of any unusual experiences. The results tended to agree with the catalogued reports.

However, although heat sensors and a heat imager were deployed in the corridor, they did not apparently provide any relevant clues, and Wiseman goes on to discuss possible physical causes of ghostly experiences, including admittedly implausible ones such as the 'Stone Tape Theory', the notion that the fabric of buildings can somehow record past events and play them back, and Persinger's theory that weak magnetic fields can cause brains to malfunction and produce strange sensations. (This theory was very popular some years ago when many people, including some some well-known scientists who should have known better, reported impressive experiences when wearing Persinger's special magnetic helmet.)

Most of the more familiar paranormal topics are discussed in this book, but many readers might feel that some of the explanations are incomplete, and even a bit glib. Modern psychical research does not depend on the investigation of anecdotal evidence, but on the statistical study of carefully controlled experiments, known as meta-analysis, which the author is familiar with but does not mention in this work.

A useful feature is the inclusion of instructions for experiments which readers can perform themselves. It is a useful introduction to the subject apart from one glaring fault -- the absence of an index. -- Reviewed by John Harney

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