Review: Paranomality - Why We Believe The Impossible, By Prof. Richard Wiseman

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Things are very rarely what they seem.
Whatever your opinions on the paranormal - be it ghosts, portents or spoon-bending - it's clear that there is a lot more at work than the simple telling of fantastical stories. Even if you believe in the supernatural, it's unlikely that you are liable to designate every medium as the genuine article, or every ghost as a genuine echo of a life long passed. The internet and TV are brimming with shows on things that go bump in the night or individuals who are more than happy to take your money to show off their gifts. If not all of them are the Real Thing (or, indeed, any of them) then why do we buy so enthusiastically into their tricks? What supports their industry and why, given the right circumstances, do we even believe in the paranormal ourselves, unprompted?

Richard Wiseman approaches these questions with a brilliant mix of personal experience, academic knowledge, and an approachable laugh-out-loud snark that doesn't turn into full-out sneering. While it would be too easy to hold up the banner of "SCIENCE!" and use it to insult those who subscribe to the paranormal without further explanation, Wiseman instead takes the approach of focusing on what the psychology of paranormality is and how, through people's natural draw and experimentations in the supernatural, it actually taught science some amazing facts about our minds that we might never otherwise have known. He is critical of those who use their knowledge to deliberately fool other people, but always has a respect for the skill and knowledge involved to do so. While some more innocent believers may be a little irrational or annoying (see the 'reincarnation of Catherine Howard' who followed them around on one of their experiments), he nevertheless gives them some respect.

Whatever your beliefs in the supernatural, this book is well worth a read. For those who don't believe, the book is a fantastic insight into the psychology of our minds that allows us to perceive such spooky goings on as we do. For those who do believe, this insight shows how you can separate out the fakes from the potentially genuine.

Prof. Richard Wiseman
The book is very approachable in its style and for a non-fiction book has a nice narrative quality that leads you through all the short sections that make up each chapter. There are little exercises you can do at home to try out your own weird-and-wibbly skills. The gimmick that really made me smile was the Q.R Readers scattered throughout. These symbols can be scanned with your smart phone and will instantly take you to a video of a study that is mentioned in the book. If you don't have a smart phone don't worry - he also has included the website addresses themselves.

Some of the topics on offer are:

  • Testing a 'psychic' dog
  • Fortune Telling
  • Out of body experiences and how to have your own
  • The psychology of spoon bending and other magic tricks
  • How two young girls and an apple on a piece of string created a whole new religion
  • The power of cults
  • How to contact the dead
  • The tale of the talking mongoose in the Isle of Wight
  • Ghost-hunting and how a group of psychologists almost shook a house to pieces
  • Hypnotism, brainwashing and the psychology of persuasion
  • Did Abraham Lincoln foresee his own murder? 
  • The remarkable world of sleep science
  • The instant superhero kit
And many more.

It's well worth a look for anyone interested in psychology or the supernatural, why not give it a go?

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  1. Cheers for the suggestion. :)

    I got a real kick out of this. Whilst I'd picked up a fair bit of it before from various places, it was still presented well and had enough to make it a good read in and of itself. It's a brilliant primer for further reading about debunking the paranormal as well.

    The talking mongoose seemed to freak me out a wee bit, though.

  2. Oh, for what it's worth, do you have any suggestions for similar books?

    1. I've got to admit that while you often see this crop up on the internet and the TV the Paranormality book was the first one I purchased completely on the subject.
      In terms of the paranormal, I have on my bookshelf The Reader's Digest: 'Mysteries of the unexplained' which rather promotes the paranormal rather than debunks it, but it's a great little collection of the weird and wonderful.
      For a general overview on psychology, I can't recommend enough 'the psychology book' byby Nigel Benson and Catherine Collin (DK publishing). It goes into more detail on some of the schools of psychology that Wiseman touches on.

      Like you, I'd love to have a deeper trawl through the subject, and to that end - as with any decent non fiction book - I would say head straight to the notes page at the back of the book.
      The majority of these are academic work but a few which jump out at me are:
      *'The King of Cold Readers: Advanced professional pseudo-psychic techiques' By B.Jones
      *'The paranormal paradox' by B.Couttie
      *'Various Anaomalous Experiences' *ed. E.Cardena, .J.Lynn, S.Krippner)

      Finally, on a different vein but also interesting, I've got sitting on my amazon wishlist 'Everyone loves a good train wreck' by Eric Wilson. While it doesn't deal with the paranormal per se, it does investigate why humans are so damn morbid.

      I hope that helps and happy reading!

  3. That's wonderful. :) I was reaching the end of my to read pile, so this should hopefully keep me going to the new year.

    You're a star, Preludes!