28 October 2014


Christopher C. French and Anna Stone. Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Christopher French defines anomalistic psychology as “attempts to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known (or knowable) psychological and physical factors ... without assuming there is anything paranormal involved” [p1].
In this book French and Stone examine the various psychological, biological, and social forces which help generate anomalous experiences and paranormal beliefs.

They examine possible social and personality differences which separate believers and sceptics, the role of various psychological states such as fantasy proneness, temporal lobe activity, sub clinical psychiatric conditions, REM intrusions, perceptual errors, false memory etc.

The coverage is wide ranging and is centred on literature surveys, both specialist and lay, and clearly most of the factors involved are included somewhere. If there is a problem in this approach it is that the emphasis lies heavily on the individual rather than society and contains within itself some inbuilt cultural biases. The sections 'individual differences', 'clinical perspectives', 'developmental perspectives', 'cognitive perspectives', 'social perspectives' and 'evolutionary perspectives' strike me as being in something of a reverse order, given that 'anomalistic experiences' and 'paranormal beliefs' are human universals and as such must possess survival value. By ordering in the way that they do the authors seem to suggest that there is something pathological or at least quasi-pathological about paranormal beliefs, either due to individual psycho-pathology or to “the persistence of magical thinking” etc. One might read much of this book without being aware of the fact that there are places in this world where refusal to believe in the 'paranormal' can lead to you being killed, and in many more to forms of social ostracism.
Now to be fair I don’t think that French and Stone really do take that reductive view, this is after all a survey of a wide range of thinking and studies and contains much valuable background material. There is a useful integration of the various approaches in the study of alien abduction stories and a very fair summing up of the equivocal evidence for psi in the last chapter, where both sides are allowed their say. This gives a real picture of just how complex to question of psi really is. I think the authors are too sanguine about the possibility of some sort of decisive experiment, and certainly wrong in the assumption that if someone having an out of the body experience could detect numbers on a hidden board it would provide evidence that consciousness could leave the body. Given that no-one ever reports seeing detached eyes flying around the place, information on such numbers could not be acquired by sight, but must have been acquired by some other process that would not necessarily involve something being present in the vicinity of the numbers.
This is clearly a book aimed at the student and academic rather than the casual reader but, despite my caveats, it is, I think, fairly essential reading for the serious student of anomalistic psychology and parapsychology. -- Peter Rogerson

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