Something spooky

5 December 2011

 bent spoon
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Bent spoon by yd, on Flickr

Psychologist and sceptic Chris French, of Goldsmiths, University of London, has spent his career subjecting paranormal claims to scientific scrutiny. When he came to our regular Packed Lunch event to talk about parapsychology, Sarah Allen went to find out whether scientific truth is indeed even stranger than fiction.

The scene is set with the offering of apples and the opportunity to absorb scientific information while enjoying a sandwich. With standing room only and a BSL interpreter at the front, this packed lunch on the topic of parapsychology had certainly whet the appetite of the incurably curious.

As part of a series of Miracles and Charms events, Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, talked about why our belief in ‘weirdy stuff’ is so enduring. His credentials and his role of self-titled sceptic is grounded in his constant questioning and gathering of scientific evidence to ascertain whether paranormal events are in fact true phenomenon or a fabrication of the mind.

So what is parapsychology? For Professor French it is the ‘psychology of the weird and wonderful’ and when asked what could be classified as such, examples of telepathy, life after death, feng shui, UFOs, reincarnation and angels made the cut. These beliefs can depend not only on personal sensibilities but can also be due to social and economic factors, such as where you live and what the beliefs of your nearest and dearest are.

In Professor French’s typical experiment we are watching a film of a spoon bender in action. Once bent, the spoon is placed on a table. One set of people are then told that the spoon keeps on bending whilst others just watch the spoon without any additional suggestions. The film finishes and participants are asked ‘did the spoon keep on bending?’: 60% of those with the additional suggestion said ‘yes’ compared to only 40% without any additional input.

Anomalistic psychology is a branch of psychology which in layman’s terms could be classed as the psychology of paranormal belief. It is the use of science to test whether paranormal forces exist. In experiments you work on the hypothesis that nothing exists and try to challenge it by producing evidence to support the event. Alien abduction is an interesting area as it looks at the psychology of false memories (like the suggestive spoon bending!).

When the podcast finished the audience was asked to pose questions. Professor French was asked about his view of the role of forensic psychics in the USA and who he would class as the ancestors of parapsychology. Ancestors lie with those who seek the scientific basis for these phenomena such as Susan Blackmore, Bob Morris and Richard Wiseman and for forensic psychics – well, let’s say that the media does its job well and any information can be investigated.

Professor French’s view of psychics is that there is a difference between the ‘genuine article’ and those with a more sinister agenda. Those who believe that they have the gift are always sincere about helping others, and many different factors may affect why we believe that people have a gift, including our emotional dependence on information, and feelings of guilt twinned with a willingness to accept.

Talk of forensic psychics led to the rise, fall and subsequent re-emergence of faith healer Peter Popoff and the reality that even though he was proved a fraud and claimed bankruptcy he has rebranded himself and is making his abilities work for him again.

People like Derren Brown use the skill of cold reading and convincing others that they have a gift. Yet we are all believers in something – whether that be that the new face cream really will prevent people asking you if you want to take their seat on the Tube or if indeed you have to be in it to win that lottery prize on Saturday.

But is there any room for the believer in the mind of Professor French? There is no direct answer however it appears he has a ’box’ for those things that still remain a mystery – one instance being experiences of reincarnation by children. One example is Cameron Macauley, a 6-year-old boy with memories of another life and family in Barra.

Sarah Allen is Communications and Operations Officer in Science Funding at the Wellcome Trust.