18 February 2017


David Groome and Ron Roberts (editors). Parapsychology: The Science of Unusual Experiences. 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2016.

Let’s get one thing out of the way at the start, this book is mis-titled, parapsychology as such takes up only one chapter, so a more accurate title might be 'Critical Essays on the Paranormal' or 'The Psychology of the Paranormal' The one chapter on academic parapsychology, by Caroline Watt deals with two topics; possible similarities between 'ESP' and subliminal perception and the debates over the Ganzfeld experiments.
In an essay on mediumship and survival, Chris Roe examines the role of cold reading and the Barnum effect on the production of allegedly paranormal information and the difficulties of separating out any genuinely paranormally gained information from these. People often grossly underestimate what information can be gleaned by appearance, clothing, age, posture, slight movements etc.

Perhaps a related topic is that of possession and exorcism, which is discussed by Chris French, who explores not just the roles of neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome in leading to beliefs in possession, but perhaps more important social factors, which provide scripts for people to act out roles. At the conclusion of this chapter he warns of the harms that belief in possession and rituals of exorcism can cause, not least child abuse, though there is no discussion of the recent rise in beliefs in child witches and resultant massive abuse.

Chris French then discusses alien abductions, and notes, while there are other factors, the crucial roles of sleep paralysis experiences and hypnotic confabulation in the generation of such stories. The question as to whether fantasy proneness is a significant factor remains moot, not least because definitions of what constitutes fantasy made differ with different world views.

Chris Roe then discusses near death experiences and notes that similar experiences are reported both by minorities of people who have come clinically close to death and those who have just had a close shave as in accidents. He notes the problems in defining death and knowing exactly what physiological processes mediate subjective experience.

Chris French further discusses reincarnation claims, concentrating on his own studies among the Druze of Lebanon. Reincarnation is central to the Druze world view and they believe that people are reincarnated at the moment of death. French notes however that few of the past live stories he encountered fitted this pattern, a fact which is explained away by invoking forgotten intermediate lives as babies who died young. He remains unconvinced by the evidence and points out that the more dramatic cases reported by Stevenson are ones from years before allowing much time for contamination and false memory.

There are chapters on dreams by Ron Roberts, astrology by David Groome, religion, belief and science by Michael Eysenck, psychic fraud by Richard Wiseman, science and experience by Ron Roberts and cognition and belief by David Groome and Robin Law. An interesting outlier paper is on conspiracy theories by Robert Brotherton and Chris French, which looks at the psychological, social and cognitive factors behind such beliefs. Given the wide coverage it is surprising that there are no chapters on ghosts and hauntings and poltergeists.

This book is clearly aimed at a readership of undergraduate students of psychology rather than the lay reader, though the latter should find parts of this enlightening and interesting. It takes a clear but not aggressively sceptical position. Students should find of it of value but this book cannot function as stand-alone textbook on parapsychology. – Peter Rogerson.

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