FOR the past 20 years, I have immersed myself in the paranormal – the weird world where people claim they can predict the future, summon spirits and move objects with their minds. I have tested telepaths, spent sleepless nights in haunted castles and even attempted to talk with the dead. Each time the story is the same: the anecdotal evidence appears impressive at first glance, but once the phenomenon is subjected to scientific scrutiny it vanishes into thin air.
So is studying the paranormal a waste of time? Not at all. In the same way that the space programme has yielded technology that has transformed our lives, so exploring supernatural happenings produces remarkable insights into our brains, beliefs and everyday behaviour.
In the late 1940s, psychologist Bertram Forer asked a group of students to fill out a personality test. A week later he handed each student a description of their personality, apparently based on their scores, and asked them to rate it for accuracy. Virtually every student rated the description as highly accurate.
In fact, every student was given exactly the same description. Forer had simply selected some general statements, such as “you have a need for other people to like and admire you” and “you have a great deal of unused creative potential”, from a book of astrological readings and glued them together (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol 44, p 118).
Forer’s study showed that personality descriptions do not need to be accurate in order to seem accurate. Instead, if you present someone with a statement that can apply to just about anyone, they believe that it is insightful and specific to them, which is of course how astrology and psychic readings work. The discovery of this so-called “Barnum Effect” – named after the showman P. T. Barnum’s catchphrase “we’ve got something for everybody” – led to a revolution in personality testing.
The experiment also helped uncover a fundamental quirk of the brain. Every moment of our waking lives we are bombarded with huge amounts of sensory information which we struggle to make sense of. Our visual system tries to detect objects and faces, and our auditory system works hard to identify sounds and understand conversation. These pattern-detecting processes are so important to our survival that we have evolved to err towards false positives, preferring to “see” nonexistent patterns than miss a genuine one. As a result, our brains have a tendency to perceive meaning in random input. This is why some people believe astrological predictions, see faces on Mars, mistake lenticular clouds for UFOs and hear the voices of the dead in static noise.
A surprisingly large number of people claim to have had an out-of-body experience at some point in their lives. Research into these strange experiences has revealed a great deal about how your brain decides where “you” are.
Perhaps the best-known study was conducted by Princeton neuroscientists Matthew Botvinick and Jonathan Cohen, and involves a large book, a towel, a rubber hand and two open-minded people.
Person A sits at a table and places their arms on the tabletop. Next, they move their right arm to the right and place the rubber hand where their real one used to be. The book is placed on the table between their arm and the rubber hand, hiding their right arm from view. The towel is used to cover the space between their arm and the rubber hand.
Person B then makes identical stroking motions on both person A’s hidden right hand and the rubber hand. After about a minute or so, person A will start to feel that the rubber hand is theirs.
What causes this partial out-of-body experience? Person A’s brain feels their hand being stroked, sees the rubber hand being stroked in the same way, concludes that the rubber hand must be theirs and constructs a sense of self that is consistent with this idea.
This effect has been replicated many times and even extended to a full-body version, suggesting that the sense of where you are is not hard-wired into your brain. Instead, it is the result of your brain constantly using information from your senses to come up with a best guess – even if it does mean you think you are floating above your body.
People sometimes visit buildings that have a reputation for being haunted, hear creaking floorboards or see the swaying of a curtain, and instantly conclude that they are in the presence of a ghost.
There is a more mundane explanation. In order to protect ourselves from danger, our brains have evolved to be hyper-vigilant to possible threats, including creepy noises and draughts.
According to Justin Barrett at the University of Oxford, ghostly experiences are due to a psychological mechanism that he has dubbed the “hypersensitive agency detection device”. He argues that the concept of agency – the ability to decide whether a stimulus such as a creaking floorboard is caused by some hidden and possibly dangerous entity – is so important for survival that the part of the brain responsible for detecting it can go into overdrive. This causes people to see deliberate action in meaningless events, and to assume a presence when there is no visible explanation for events.
The same concept helps to explain belief in God, ghosts and other nonexistent entities, says Barrett. Seen in this way, ghosts are not spirits returning from the dead but the price we pay for eternal vigilance.
In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger of the University of Minnesota investigated a cult in Chicago that was convinced that the end of the world was nigh. The leader, Dorothy Martin, prophesied that there would be a great flood on 21 December and that a flying saucer would rescue her and her followers just before disaster occurred.
Festinger had several observers infiltrate the group and record what happened. As the appointed time approached, the members were buoyant and worked hard to spread word of the impending catastrophe. However, when 21 December came and went without any flooding or extraterrestrial visitation, the mood changed.
Did the group suddenly change its beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence? No. Instead, members concluded that they must have averted the cataclysm by spreading the word.
Festinger’s investigation led him to develop the theory of cognitive dissonance. According to this idea, people find it uncomfortable to hold two conflicting beliefs in their head at the same time, and will perform all sorts of mental gymnastics to reconcile the two.
When evidence conflicts with cherished beliefs, most people are happier to explain away even the most compelling data rather than abandon their beliefs. So smokers will question research showing links between their habit and ill health rather than give up, drivers convicted of speeding will convince themselves that the speed limits are too low rather than conclude that they put lives at risk, and politicians will argue for the effectiveness of their policies even when their ideas have obviously failed.
This approach pervades our everyday lives and helps our beliefs emerge unscathed through even the most devastating of evidential attacks.
For centuries, some people have claimed that they can use pendulums to determine the sex of unborn babies, predict the future and commune with spirits. They can’t. As long ago as the 19th century it was known that the pendulum swings because of small unconscious movements known as “ideomotor actions”.
In the 1990s, Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University, decided to use this effect in his work on the “rebound effect”. He had conducted several studies in which participants were asked not to imagine a white bear, and to ring a bell each time said bear sprang to mind. The results revealed that asking people not to think of something causes them to do the exact opposite.
Wegner had heard that proponents of the paranormal claimed that a pendulum continued to move even when the person holding it made a special attempt to keep their hands still, and wondered whether the rebound effect might influence ideomotor action as well as thought. To find out, he filmed volunteers as they held a pendulum, telling half of them to make a special effort not to move the pendulum and the others just to hold it as still as possible.
Just as being asked not to think about a white bear resulted in endless bears, so trying not to move the pendulum produced increased swinging. Although there is debate about why the effect emerges, it seems likely that continually checking that you are not swinging the pendulum brings to mind the very behaviour you are trying to avoid, making it more likely that you will unconsciously produce that movement.
This effect occurs in many different settings. Asking golfers not to overshoot a mark makes them more likely to putt the ball too hard. Likewise, eye-tracking experiments have revealed that telling footballers to avoid aiming a penalty into a particular part of the goal resulted in them not being able to keep their eyes off it.
In 1890, a Mr S. J. Davey announced that he had acquired the gift of mediumship and would be holding seances at his London home. Night after night small groups gathered around the table in his dining room and witnessed various “supernatural” events, such as chalk messages magically appearing on slates and spirits materialising in front of their eyes.
Guests would leave the house convinced that they had made contact with the spirit world. In reality, Davey was a skeptic and a conjuror who used trickery to fake everything.
After each séance, Davey asked his guests to send him a written account of their evening, and was stunned to discover that people frequently misremembered what had happened. Many recalled events in the wrong order, and some even omitted the important ones altogether.
Davey’s work constitutes the first demonstration of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Despite how it seems, the perceptual system does not work like a video camera, accurately recording every event that happens. The act of perception is cognitively demanding, so your eyes and brain focus a fairly small spotlight of attention on what appears to be the most important thing at that moment. In addition, it creates the illusion that you are constantly seeing far more than this small area, which fools you into believing that you are an accurate observer.
Inspired by Davey’s work, researchers have carried out numerous similar studies, often examining the reliability of eyewitness accounts of crimes. These have confirmed that most people are highly confident, but extremely unreliable, witnesses.
After spending years using Ouija boards to apparently spell out messages from the dead, some 19th-century mediums decided to speed up the process by holding a pencil, entering into a trance and scribbling messages. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner argues that the mechanism behind this “automatic writing” helps solve one of the most hotly debated issues in science: free will.
Wegner believes that the sense of you as decision-maker is an illusion created by your brain. According to him, your brain makes a decision and then, a split second later, informs the conscious part of your brain what it has done, making you think you are in control. At the same time, it delays the motor signals going to your legs, arms or mouth. As a result, you receive the “I have just made this decision” signal, experience yourself acting in a way that is consistent with that signal, and incorrectly conclude that the conscious you is in the driving seat.
During automatic writing, this mechanism malfunctions, says Wegner. The unconscious part of the brain makes the decision to act and sends the right messages to the appropriate muscles – but fails to send the signals responsible for creating the conscious experience of you making the decision.
If Wegner is correct, then this phenomenon provides a unique and important insight into the fundamental nature of free will. During such episodes the illusion of free will breaks down and we are revealed as the automatons we really are. Seen in this way, automatic writing is not some freak-show oddity, but rather reflects our true nature.