26.11.11

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE PARANORMAL

Tony Jinks. An Introduction to the Psychology of Paranormal Belief and Experience. McFarland, 2011

In this intriguing book, Tony Jinks, a lecturer on neuroscience at the University of Western Sydney, uses a wide definition of the paranormal, encompassing all the various topics covered by Magonia, and takes a detailed examination of the range of psychological explanations, both mainstream and exotic used to "explain" such experiences.

His introductory chapters discuss what is meant by the paranormal and the history of parapsychology. Here he points out some of the problems associated with the use of terms like "ESP" etc., most notably their often circular definition and lack of basis in mainstream science. He neatly sums up some of the many controversies in this field. However this does not mean that he is a die-hard skeptic, anything but as can be seen when he examines the various psychological theories in turn, broadly following a path of increasing complexity and heterodoxy.

These theories range from the simplest kind, such as those use to explain popular superstitions, through to theories of illusion, errors of judging probability, and the various studies which seek to correlate these with various personality types. Here he makes a number of very valid points, for example the automatic assumption among mainstream psychologists that not only do these things not happen, but that those who experience them must have some sort of syndrome or other. Another very valid point is that many of the terms used by psychologists to explain such experiences such as 'boundary deficiency', 'fantasy prone personality' or 'transliminality' (which strike me as possibly just different labels for the same thing, a tendency to confuse imagination with perception), can be every bit as circular as terms such as ESP.

He finds more convincing those explanations involving distinct neurological processes ranging from hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, highway hypnosis, sleep paralysis etc., through to temporal lobe epilepsy. Perhaps, though he underplays just how radical misperception can be in certain circumstances. In this set of discussions perhaps one noted omission is the role of false awakening, which may account for a number of dramatic paranormal experiences.
Having discussed the role of temporal lobe epilepsy, Jinks then goes into more exotic territory with a discussion of the (alleged) roles of electromagnetic fields, tectonic strain etc., and the work of Michael Persinger. I am not sure that these theories can rightfully be called psychological, perhaps 'environmental' theories would be a better description, though one might settle on psycho-enviromental as a decription. Though clearly intrigued by Persinger's ideas, Jinks correctly points out that they have come under fire from believers and sceptics alike though often for opposite reasons. He notes that attempts to replicate Persinger's findings by a Swedish team failed, and that it is not clear that some of the strange experiences undergone by those using Persinger's famous helmet are not simply the result of expectation and suggestion, The same may well also be true of alleged correlations between electromagnetic field anomalies and 'haunted' spots.

If these ideas are based at least to some extent on mainstream psychological theories, the next set are based on more controversial theories - the psychodynamic theories of Freud, Jung etc. In this section there is an extensive discussion of Alvin Lawson's birth trauma hypothesis, though Jinks concedes that this is controversial to say the least. In particular mainstream psychology denies that it is neurologically possible for memories of birth to survive multiple changes in the brain.

Jinks also discusses the theories, particularly those associated with UFO abductions, constructed by Hilary Evans, D. Scott Rogo and the younger Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman. These centre around such experiences being dramas which illuminate personal crises, and Jinks shows how they can be applied to the 'Kelly Cahill' abduction case. While intriguing, the theories of the latter two especially, involve mysterious paranormal processes, in Rogo's case the mysterious 'Phenomenon' which may or may not be a synonym for God. Such ideas are unlikely to appeal to mainstream psychology, or mainstream science in general. The same is probably true of speculative theories involving quantum mechanics.

While the coverage of psychological theories is wide, it is not exhaustive, and there could have been some discussion of theories involving family dynamics, and those which invoke social processes rather than individual pathology. Perhaps they could be covered in second edition, which might also correct the only other criticism I have, the fact that not all the references in the text are included in the bibliography.

But these should not detract from this very interesting study, one which makes a welcome exception from the usual partisan polemics by believers and sceptics, and which attempts a genuinely opened minded approach. We need more studies like this. -- Peter Rogerson


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