Paranormality – Why we believe the impossible, written by Professor Richard Wiseman, manages to combine four stories into a single book. Wiseman is a well-known name in skeptic circles, and this book does not disappoint in the debunking department. But it also uses the investigation of paranormal phenomena as a way to explain how our brains work. And then some. It all makes for a very satisfying read.
The primary story of the book is that paranormal phenomena just do not exist, and offering explanations for the various phenomena that have been observed over the years. This is why I wanted to read the book in the first place, and it does not disappoint in this department. The book explains how to spot fakery and illusions, and gives plenty of examples of how people have been deluded. It worth noting that many of the people who say they have paranormal powers are quite convinced that they do, and that they are just as deluded as their audience. But then again, there are many more that knowingly deceive people for their own gain. Into this narrative, Wiseman manages to weave three other stories.
The second story is the history of the investigation of paranormal phenomena. In recent years, this has become a pretty busy field, but Wiseman shows us how it all started. We learn how classic scientists like Faraday investigated table turning, which he did in a fairly complicated way – but still managed to convincingly show that the tables turned based on the involuntary hand movements of the participants in the table-turning session. There are many more stories like that in the book, which for a history buff like me was an unexpected bonus. There have been some quite extraordinary investigations performed in the past, including Tony Cornell showing that people do not see a ghost unless it quite literally hits them on the face, and shaking a house to pieces in order to investigate what could be behind spontaneous movement of cups, spoons, and similar items.
The third story is that by investigating paranormal phenomena, scientists have learned a lot about how our brains worked. In the process of understanding a particular paranormal phenomenon, scientists have often ended up discovering mechanism in our brain that we just did not know existed before. Paranormal investigation gave rise to sleep science, and gave us the today well-known concept of REM sleep, for example.
The fourth and final story is how our brains work. It comes quite naturally out of the third story, and it really is the answer to the book’s subtitle – why we believe the impossible. Wiseman provides quite a few exercises along the way to show us this. I must admit I did not spend time on all of them, but just reading the text at least provides you with the knowledge of what is going on. This is actually useful everyday knowledge, and tells you why some popular ideas like positive thinking just are completely bunks.
Throughout the book, Wiseman has included QR codes with links to further materials on the web, like this:
It works pretty well, but one cannot wonder how long these links will live compared to the book. Still, it is an interesting experiment into how to make a paper book a bit more interactive. At least for the next few years, this seems like a worthwhile idea. The media being linked to is definitely worth watching and listening to.